Hospital’s new gun lock program aims to reverse trend of kids dying by gunshot

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Fein often tells the story to parents of his young patients at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: how, when he was a child, he knew the contents of every drawer and closet in his family home. There were no shelves he hadn’t rummaged through, no hiding places he hadn’t uncovered.

His parents didn’t own a gun, he said, but if they did, and it wasn’t locked away in a safe, he probably would have found it. It’s what children do, he said.

Fein and his colleagues at CHOP are part of a growing number of pediatricians working under a newfound urgency to educate families on safe firearm storage as gun ownership rises, suicide rates among adolescents surge, and as guns have become the leading cause of death for American children.

Counseling families about where and how they store their weapons has typically been at the discretion of the doctor, and it’s a recommended practice pediatricians have been following for decades, similar to how they ask about car seats, pools, allergies, and household chemical storage.

But doctors at CHOP are now not only discussing the subject with parents, but also providing free gun locks to Philadelphians in need. Plans are in the works to also offer free keypad safes in the coming months.

Questions about gun safety and storage are now built into many of the hospital system’s primary care patient questionnaires. Much in the same way doctors are reminded to ask about nutrition, sleep, and development, they’re now prompted to discuss the topic at all visits from when a child is born until age 19, said Dorothy Novick, the attending physician spearheading the initiative.

The hope is to educate families about safe storage, and keep guns out of the hands of children, who at just 2 years old, are strong enough to pull a trigger. It’s also essential to reducing suicide, Novick said, which is now a leading cause of death for kids 10 to 14. Teens who live in homes with guns are four times more likely to die by suicide, and there has been a dramatic rise in suicide among Black youth in recent years.

While doctors are advised to explain that a gun-free home is the safest for a child, they’ve realized that’s not always a realistic option for some families, Novick said. They want to make sure, she said, that if a patient’s family owns a weapon, they can have a judgment-free conversation with their doctor to ensure it’s stored as safely as possible.

“We want to do everything we can to keep children from dying,” she said.

The need is there. The number of young people in Philadelphia who have shot themselves has risen starkly in the last five years, according to police data. Of the 158 people who shot themselves last year, 17 were 18 or younger — more than five times the number recorded just five years earlier. Three died.

Twelve children have been killed in accidental shootings in Philadelphia since 2016, according to police records. Those include a 2-year-old accidentally shot by her cousin with a learning disability who found his grandmother’s gun. A 9-year-old boy killed by his teen brother after he held up a gun for a TikTok video and accidentally fired it. And a 4-year-old who shot herself.

Families appear to be responding well, Novick said. Last year, CHOP provided 770 locks to families at three of its primary care centers — plus 683 to families in the Emergency Department. This is important, she said, because research has shown that providing devices at the time of conversation is key to getting gun owners to store the weapon safely.

Only select providers in the hospital system currently offer the locks, but the plan is to soon make cable locks available at all CHOP practices that opt into the program, Novick said. Safes are also on the horizon.