• Article
  • June 27, 2016

Hospital Helps Families Prevent Accidental Gun Injuries and Deaths

Hospital helps inform parents of the dangers of unsecured guns and educates them on how to find out if there are weapons where their children play.

By Kaitie Marolf

A 13-year-old boy, Ethan, called his mom to ask if he could spend the night at a friend's house with two other boys. His mother, Katherine Younger, spoke with the other parent on the phone to confirm the plans. "They say small moments can change everything," Younger says. "A one-time bad decision can affect you forever. People should know where their kids are going."

Shortly after the boys arrived at the house, the child that lived there was in the kitchen cooking with his mother, and one of the other boys called Ethan into his friend's bedroom. As Ethan entered the room, a shotgun that had been hanging, loaded on the wall went off and hit Ethan's groin area, striking a major artery.

"We saw Ethan lying on the ground," says Tommy Reeve, firefighter and EMT. "My first reaction was, ‘This doesn't look good.'" Reeve was with Ethan on the ambulance ride to the hospital, trying desperately to prevent additional blood loss. 

When they arrived at Phoenix Children's Hospital and Reeve released the leg, a doctor jumped onto the gurney. "He had lost so much blood," Younger says. "There was a doctor on top of him trying to apply pressure." After numerous surgeries and weeks in a barely conscious state, Ethan woke up and began working to regain his life. Despite several failed artery replacement surgeries, the veins in his leg are able to provide enough blood for him to go on with his daily activities, and even run.

Raising the question

Six years later, Phoenix Children's asked Reeve if he would be interested in participating in a gun safety effort called the ASK Campaign. Since its inception 10 years ago, the national ASK campaign, a partnership between the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), has inspired 19 million households to ask about guns where their children play. As part of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, Phoenix Children's began hosting an ASK event last year. Reeve invited the Younger family to participate in the 2016 event.

Events lasted about a week, including a media day where the family, Reeve and a physician who worked with Ethan met with reporters, followed by the official ASK Day on June 21, where local community centers handed out free gun locks to citizens and spread the word about the campaign's mission.

"It's not about whether you have guns or not," says Carrie Cantrell, injury prevention specialist at Phoenix Children's. "It's not a political debate. The goal is to keep children safe." The campaign encourages parents to simply ask if there is a loaded, unlocked weapon in the home before their child plays there, much like they would ask about a pool fence or allergy triggers.

Sara Bode, M.D., general pediatrician in the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine and director of the Advocacy Program at Phoenix Children's, sees the value in the campaign for gun owners and non-gun owners. “We always have a lot of people show up to our events wanting to obtain gun locks and safes, so we feel like that’s a concrete way to connect with families who do own guns to get them up and safe,” she says. “The education piece is equally important because we have a lot of families that don’t own guns and need to be prepared to ask.”

Speaking up for safety

At first, it can be an awkward and intimidating conversation, but a worthwhile one. After getting involved with the campaign, Reeve asked his aunt, who often watches his sons and whom he knew had guns. "It was a good conversation because she didn't keep them locked, and she's going to now," he says. "It was awkward for me to ask that but afterwards, it wasn't a big deal."

Asking children and parents about weapons is part of the AAP’s recommendations for routine guidance, Bode says. She taught her young children to ask about weapons before heading to a friend’s house. “We taught our kids that this is just something you have to ask. It’s not a big deal. To them, it’s just something they have to do when getting to know somebody and going over to their house.” 

The gun that Ethan was shot with was the home defense gun, which the mother had placed in her 14-year-old's possession. Younger wonders how the other mom would have reacted if she'd inquired about weapons in the home.

"You assume that parents lock up their guns," she says. "If I had thought about asking that question, it could have prevented this whole thing." She hopes that by sharing her family's story other parents will think about it, and protect more children in the process.