One in 4 Colorado teens reported they could get access to a loaded gun within 24 hours, according to survey results published Monday. Nearly half of those teens said it would take them less than 10 minutes.
“That’s a lot of access and those are short periods of time,” said Virginia McCarthy, a doctoral candidate at the Colorado School of Public Health and the lead author of the research letter describing the findings in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The results come as Coloradans are reeling from yet another school shooting. On March 22, a 17-year-old student shot and wounded two school administrators at East High School in Denver. Police later found his body in a nearby park and confirmed he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Another East High student was fatally shot in February while sitting in his car outside the school.
The time it takes to access a gun matters, McCarthy said, particularly for suicide attempts, which are often impulsive decisions for teens. In research studying people who have attempted suicide, nearly half said the time between ideation and action was less than 10 minutes. Creating barriers to easy access, such as locking up guns and storing them unloaded, extends the time before someone can act on an impulse, and increases the likelihood that they will change their mind or that someone will intervene.
“The hope is to understand access in such a way that we can increase that time and keep kids as safe as possible,” McCarthy said.
The data McCarthy used comes from the Healthy Kids Colorado Study, a survey conducted every two years with a random sampling of 41,000 students in middle and high school. The 2021 survey asked, “How long would it take you to get and be ready to fire a loaded gun without a parent’s permission?”
American Indian students in Colorado reported the greatest access to a loaded gun, at 39%, including 18% saying they could get one within 10 minutes, compared with 12% of everybody surveyed. American Indian and Native Alaskan youths also have the highest rates of suicide.
Nearly 40% of students in rural areas reported having access to firearms, compared with 29% of city residents.
The findings were released at a particularly tense moment in youth gun violence in Colorado. Earlier this month, hundreds of students left their classrooms and walked nearly 2 miles to the state Capitol to advocate for gun legislation and safer schools. The students returned to confront lawmakers again last week in the aftermath of the March 22 high school shooting.
The state legislature is considering a handful of bills to prevent gun violence, including raising the minimum age to purchase or possess a gun to 21; establishing a three-day waiting period for gun purchases; limiting legal protections for gun manufacturers and sellers; and expanding the pool of who can file for extreme risk protection orders to have guns removed from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearms became the leading cause of death among those ages 19 or younger in 2020, supplanting motor vehicle deaths. And firearm deaths among children increased during the pandemic, with an average of seven children a day dying because of a firearm incident in 2021.
Colorado has endured a string of school shootings over the past 25 years, including at Columbine High School in 1999, Platte Canyon High School in 2006, Arapahoe High School in 2013, and the STEM School Highlands Ranch in 2019.
Although school shootings receive more attention, the majority of teen gun deaths are suicides.
“Youth suicide is starting to become a bigger problem than it ever has been,” said Dr. Paul Nestadt, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
“Part of that has to do with the fact that there’s more and more guns that are accessible to youth.”
While gun ownership poses a higher risk of suicide among all age groups, teens are particularly vulnerable, because their brains typically are still developing impulse control.
“A teen may be bright and know how to properly handle a firearm, but that same teen in a moment of desperation may act impulsively without thinking through the consequences,” said Dr. Shayla Sullivant, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “The decision-making centers of the brain are not fully online until adulthood.”
Previous research has shown a disconnect between parents and their children about access to guns in their homes. A 2021 study found that 70% of parents who own firearms said their children could not get their hands on the guns kept at home. But 41% of kids from those same families said they could get to those guns within two hours.
“Making the guns inaccessible doesn’t just mean locking them. It means making sure the kid doesn’t know where the keys are or can’t guess the combination,” said Catherine Barber, a senior researcher at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, who was not involved in the study. “Parents can forget how easily their kids can guess the combination or watch them input the numbers or notice where the keys are kept.”
If teens have their own guns for hunting or sport, those, too, should be kept under parental control when the guns are not actively being used, she said.
The Colorado researchers now plan to dig further to find out where teens are accessing guns in hopes of tailoring prevention strategies to different groups of students.
“Contextualizing these data a little bit further will help us better understand types of education and prevention that can be done,” McCarthy said.
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