Dr. Chuck Jennissen (U-I photo)

An ER doctor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is appealing to all gun owners in the state to lock up their weapons, especially if there are ever children in the house.

Pediatric emergency medicine physician Dr. Chuck Jennissen says he’s repeatedly witnessed the tragedies that happen when people leave loaded guns in the home within reach. “You see parents who are crying and upset with the death of their child and as bad as that is, losing a child, it’s really the family that goes on with having to live with that loss, which is a real terrible thing,” Jennissen says. “So it’s really important to try to prevent these things from happening to begin with.”

Jennissen, who’s a clinical professor of emergency medicine at the UI, says there are more guns in the U.S. than any other country, and he says that’s directly related to the number of children’s deaths from firearms. “If you look at unintentional and suicide death rates on kids five to 14 years of age, we’re about 12 times that of any other industrial country,” Jennissen says. “For kids that are zero to four years of age, our firearm-related deaths are 33 times that of most other industrialized countries.”

The nation is seeing increasing rates of child and teen suicides, he says, mostly through firearms. For 10- to 19-year-olds, suicide is the number-two cause of death, only behind motor vehicle crashes.

One of the biggest risk factors is access to a firearm and Jennissen recalls one case that involved an 11-year-old boy who was brought into the ER. “No one knew of him having any problems with mental health or suffering suicidal ideation, and he apparently must have had a bad day at school or something,” Jennissen says. “He came home, was able to get access to the handgun that was kept in the home and shot himself and died.”

A survey was taken of FFA members at the Iowa State Leadership Conference in 2019. Of those surveyed, 58% said they had a handgun in their home, and 84% had a rifle or shotgun. They were also asked about how the guns are stored.

“A lot of the homes, the rifles were stored unlocked, over half of them were stored unlocked, 51%, and 29% of the FFAers said that the rifles, shotguns in their home were stored loaded,” Jennissen says, “and 17%, almost a fifth of them, said that they had firearms that were stored, both unlocked and loaded at least some of the time.”

Studies find access to a firearm triples one’s risk of death by suicide if it’s someone who has suicidal ideations, which is why he says it’s crucial to make certain they don’t have access. Jennissen made his comments on “From the Front Row,” a recent podcast by the UI College of Public Health.