August 19, 2021

Children, firearms mixing more during pandemic

Researchers at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt discovered an alarming finding during the height of the pandemic — a marked increase in firearm encounters among children.

Kelsey Gastineau, MD

by Jessica Pasley

Researchers at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt discovered an alarming finding during the height of the pandemic — a marked increase  in firearm encounters among children.

“A lot of pediatricians were seeing this really odd downturn trend in overall hospital encounters (in 2020),” said Kelsey Gastineau, MD, a clinical fellow of Hospital Medicine at Children’s Hospital. “In 2020, the U.S. experienced an unprecedented rise in firearm sales. Coupled with an atypical scenario — many children were at home due to school closures and remote learning — and the increase of psychosocial issues being reported during the pandemic, we decided to compare data.

“We found a 42% increase during March to August of 2020 in firearm-related encounters compared to the same timeframe over a three-year period,” she said. “Firearm encounters increased almost as much as the total number of hospital encounters decreased.”

In the United States, 4.6 million children live in a home with an unsecured firearm, increasing risk for firearm-related injuries, the second leading cause of death in children, the study noted.

For Gastineau and her colleagues, the information fueled their push to promote firearm safety throughout the community as well as among their peers.

The findings of the study “Pediatric Firearm-Related Hospital Encounters During the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic” were released this month in Pediatrics.

The International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision (ICD-10) discharge diagnosis codes from 44 children’s hospital across the country were used to conduct a cross-sectional comparison of pediatric firearm-related encounters and total emergency department/hospital encounters during the study period.

According to the study, it is the first of its kind to highlight the significant increase in pediatric firearm encounters of all ages during the pandemic, and defined firearm-related encounters as an initial encounter for a penetrating injury from a powder-charged weapon.

“This is a public health epidemic,” said Gastineau, principal author of the study. “There were 2,510 firearm-related encounters during the four-year study period, of which 798, or 32%, occurred in 2020. Our findings underscore the critical importance of preventing firearm injuries by prioritizing crisis support, counseling/education on safely storing firearms.

“If there is one thing that anyone can take from these findings, it’s that safe storage can really save lives.”

Gastineau offered the following to aid in prevention:

  • Securing firearms, locked, unloaded and separated from ammunition will result in risk reduction.
  • Ask homeowners where your child is visiting about the presence of unsecured firearms.
  • Talk to your pediatrician about safe storage options.

“Pediatricians really want to have this conversation,” said Gastineau. “We should be a trusted source of all things injury prevention, whether it’s safe sleep, vaccines, helmet use or swimming.”

  • Recognize the role that firearms play in teen suicide.

“Every teen can have a bad day, so be thoughtful about teens’ impulsivity,” Gastineau said.

Recently, Gastineau worked with Shari Barkin, MD, MSHS, professor of Pediatrics, on a firearm counseling platform called Safer: Storing Firearms Prevents Harm. The free online programing, available to members of the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers five short videos on guidance when speaking to families on safe firearm storage. Released in June, the tool had more than 100 users in the first month.

“We are excited to see how far-reaching the study findings go,” Gastineau said. “Ultimately, we want to increase firearm counseling discussions between families and physicians and raise awareness of the need to safely secure firearms.”