By Genevra Pittman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Close to one-quarter of teenagers and young adults treated for assault injuries in a Michigan emergency room reported owning or carrying a gun, according to a new study.
Most of those weapons were obtained illegally, researchers found, and 22 percent of young gun owners said they had an automatic or semi-automatic firearm.
"I think the surprise, if there is any here, is the numbers really are quite high," said Dr. Robert Sege of Boston Medical Center, who wrote a commentary published with the new report in the journal Pediatrics.
"We need to have a general sense that it's not okay for teenagers and young people to be walking around armed," he told Reuters Health.
One 2003 study found rates of gun homicides among 15- to 24-year-olds were more than 40 times higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy nations.
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics said families with children should ideally have no guns at home, but if they do, guns should be kept locked and separate from ammunition (see Reuters Health story of October 18, 2012 here: http://reut.rs/WsYYwl).
But the U.S. Congress remains divided on issues of gun control, with the Senate rejecting a plan to expand background checks for gun buyers in April.
For the new study, researchers led by Dr. Patrick Carter from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor surveyed 689 young people, ages 14 to 24, about their gun ownership, drug use and attitudes about fighting.
All of the youth were being seen in the ER of a Flint, Michigan public hospital for assault-related injuries.
Just over 23 percent of the young people, or 159, said they owned or carried a gun.
Well-off young men were most likely to have a gun. Possession rates did not vary by race.
More than 80 percent of gun owners said they obtained their firearm from an illegal source - including family and friends, or through a cash purchase.
Gun owners were more likely than other members of the study group to use illicit drugs and to agree that "revenge was a good thing," the researchers found.
That puts those people at higher risk for future gun-related violence, Carter said.
According to Sege, some hospitals and community groups have programs that reach out to kids who have been hurt and redirect their focus away from violence.
"Teenagers need to have another way to deal with those feelings," he said.
But there's a need for more research on how best to help them do that, Sege added - and so far, such studies haven't been funded.
Carter agreed there's a lack of work looking at what types of ER programs may help limit future violence and address safe gun storage.
"In this specific community, which has high rates of violence, there are a lot of youth who have guns," he told Reuters Health.
"I would say to parents, talk to your kids about firearms and the dangers associated with firearms and try to look at ways to prevent kids from getting involved in both substance use and violence."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/cxXOG Pediatrics, online July 8, 2013.