LOS ANGELES - One-third of U.S. homes with children have at least one firearm and nearly half of them keep the weapons unsecured, a study found.
Forty-three percent of such homes kept one or more guns in an unlocked place and without trigger locks, and guns were kept loaded as well as unlocked in 9 percent, according to researchers at Rand Corp. and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The findings underscore the need to make adults more aware that firearms are accessible to many children and that they need to keep the weapons out of their hands, said Dr. Mark A. Schuster, a UCLA pediatrician and the study's lead author.
The study, released Thursday, was reported in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association.
The issue of children's access to guns has become a national focus as schools repeatedly become scenes of violence, ranging from the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado last year to a 6-year-old shooting a classmate in Michigan last month.
The study used information from interviews of 45,435 households for the 1994 National Health Interview Survey and additional questioning of 19,374 of those households in a supplement that included a section covering firearms, Schuster said. The surveys were administered by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Firearms are present in 35 percent of U.S. homes with children - representing more than 11 million homes with more than 22 million children younger than age 18, according to the study.
The 9 percent of those homes that keep firearms unlocked and loaded would translate into homes with 1.7 million children, researchers found. Another 4 percent of the homes have guns that are unlocked and with ammunition stored nearby.
''Thus, a total of about 13 percent of homes - about 1.4 million homes with about 2.6 million children - had firearms stored in a manner most accessible to children,'' the report said.
Just 39 percent of homes with firearms had them locked, unloaded and stored separately from ammunition, it said.
Schuster said in an interview that while school shootings make clear the need to limit children's access to firearms, there are promising signs.
Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest gun manufacturer, has agreed to provide external safety locks on all its handguns within 60 days and internal locks within two years.
''The fact that at least one major gun manufacturer is going to be building safer firearms is good news,'' Schuster said. ''But it's still the responsibility of parents and other adults to keep firearms out of their children's hands.''
National Rifle Association lobbyist James J. Baker said he was not surprised by the study and he cited National Safety Council data showing gun accidents at an all-time low.
''We think education and training is the key to reducing figures,'' Baker said. ''We don't believe new laws will impact what goes on in homes. Ultimately, families will decide what they feel is best for their particular circumstances.''
Joe Waldron, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms in Bellevue, Wash., said: ''Considering the millions of homes that have firearms in them, the fact that firearms accidental injuries and deaths are at their lowest point in U.S. history indicates the problem is not as great as the study indicates.''
Rand, the Santa Monica, Calif., think tank, does research on national security, public policy planning, education, health, science and technology.
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