Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
What would you say if someone asked if there’s a gun ready to use at your house?
What would you think if someone asked your kids if they know where you keep your gun?
As a part of their routine, in-take questioning during medical visits, the staff at Bronson Children’s Hospital is hoping you’ll think about such things, although they aren’t trying to probe or pry. They're simply asking, “Are the firearms in your home kept in a safe place and locked?”
“Our program initially went from a check-box on a health-history form at various intervals on whether families had firearms in their home,” says Dr. Thomas Huggett, “to this more detailed process of question and education that is honestly still evolving.”
Dr. Thomas Huggett visits with a young patient at Bronson LakeView Family Care in Paw Paw.
Huggett is a pediatrician at Bronson LakeView Family Care in Paw Paw.
“The mission really is educating families on firearms safety,” says Huggett. And the questioning is intended to raise awareness of the dangers that unsecured firearms present, and to motivate people to ensure that guns are stored properly and locked, he says. That is followed by an offer of a free cable gun lock for those who want one.
One in three homes with children aged 18 years or younger has a gun, according to Project Childsafe. And young people have a deeply ingrained sense of curiosity, Bronson officials say.
Huggett says Bronson’s gun safety awareness campaign started in June, with the knowledge that since 2020 guns have become the leading cause of death among children ages 18 or younger, surpassing car accidents. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
, the number of childhood gun deaths does not appear to be relenting. About 19 percent of all childhood deaths in 2021 were the result of incidents involving firearms, it reports. According to KFF Health, there were 2,571 child deaths due to firearms in 2021. That equated to 3.7 deaths per 100,000 children and was a 68 percent increase over the year before.
To date, Bronson's gun safety awareness initiative has been implemented only in its nine area pediatrics offices. But that includes more than 70 health care providers including
physicians, certified physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. Those offices are located in Kalamazoo, Portage, Richland, Three Rivers, Paw Paw, and South Haven. The health organization has a goal to implement the gun safety awareness campaign in other hospital departments soon.
Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller says law enforcement needs parents to be involved in gun safety efforts to keep their children safe.
“I applaud every effort,” Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller says of safeguarding children from guns. His office appreciates the opportunity to partner with other organizations in that endeavor. It is working with Bronson on its awareness campaign along with the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office.
“The more partnerships that we have, the better opportunity we have to save a life,” he says.
Fuller says a cable lock for a gun costs as little as $7. But he’s heard people complain that gun locks are too expensive.
“When I hear people say, ‘Man, they’re too expensive’ or they’re too cumbersome or whatever,” he says,” My thing is, they are never too expensive to save a life.”
His office has offered free gun locks for several years. It gives them to people who want to register a gun. The cost of them is included in the Sheriff's office’s budget. To increase the reach of their efforts, deputies began partnering with community groups such as Moms Demand Action
and other organizations interested in handing out gun locks at events.
Partnerships to provide gun locks at no cost demonstrate the community’s commitment to keeping families safe, says Joel Murr, director of Community Health Advancement at Bronson Healthcare. “Safe gun storage is one essential strategy to prevent injuries and deaths in Southwest Michigan,” he says.
Working with sheriff’s offices in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties, Bronson Children’s Hospital is providing free gun locks to the families of patients.
The hospital system does not have data on how many inquiries its staff has made, or how many cable-style gun locks they have given away. But Huggett says that if it helps save even one life, it has been worth it.
About medical professionals asking patients about gun safety, Fuller says, “I don’t think there’s going to be too many people who think they’re being intrusive when they do it.” But he says hospital staff members have to be cautious with their questioning and not just have a conversation with a child. “It has to be talking with the parents,” he says.
Two families have written the hospital to say they think the inquiry was an invasion of their privacy, Huggett says. That happened a day or two after their office visits.
But the hospital had no face-to-face complaints about inquiries made by staff. “I think it’s been curiosity as much as anything,” Huggett says.
He says he and other hospital staffers benefit from relationships they already have with many of their patients. “A lot of time people take it as informational,” Huggett says of how patient families are receiving inquiries from hospital staff members.
Officials with Bronson Children’s Hospital say safe gun storage with a cable lock like this is essential to prevent curious kids from getting injured.
With its gun safety effort, Bronson is suggesting practical action that people can take to help address the massive, but never-more-important topic of how to help safeguard kids from gun violence.
Fuller said that through mid-July there had been 11 gun-related homicides in less than four months. “And they’re all young people shooting each other, or shooting at each other,” he says.
Law enforcement needs parents to be more involved in their children’s lives, Fuller says. “No program is going to work without the cooperation of parents or family members of any of these children that we’re talking about.”
He says that when people are asked about gun safety, they don’t have to answer. But those who may have a question about whether a gun is safe in their house, “Can easily say, ‘You know, I think they’re (my guns are) safe, but what are you talking about?’ And that’s where Bronson can say, ‘Here’s a gun lock. Or here’s three gun locks, or four’ — depending on what they have. That may help you have more peace of mind.”
The hospital sees gun deaths as a public health concern “that we have the power to change,” Huggett says. “Safe storage of guns can prevent unintentional shootings, violence, and gun tragedies from happening in our community.”