Guns Or Dogs?

The dog had bitten the child in the face, and the dog’s owner was angry.  The child’s parents thought the owner was going to shoot the dog.  This worried me because we needed the dog alive to see if it developed rabies.  I called the Sheriff’s department, who patched me through to the deputy on scene. “Did he shoot the dog?” I asked.  “Yes, in the head,” replied the deputy.  Oh no, I thought, shooting in the head is the worst, because second best to a live dog is having enough brain tissue to test for the rabies virus.

“How’s the dog then?” I asked tentatively.  “Well, when I pulled up,” the deputy replied, “he ran out, jumped up, and started licking me!”  Turns out the dog had been shot with a pellet gun, not the shotgun I imagined, and the pellet didn’t penetrate his thick skull.

This dog was lucky, because 9 times out of 10 dogs are shot with bigger weapons than pellet guns, and firearms are everywhere.  People are afraid of police because every cop carries a gun, and police are afraid because there’s so many guns among their constituents, who sometimes brandish them during routine traffic stops or domestic disputes.

Firearms are inherently dangerous.  They’re designed to kill. They’re present in at least half of all Louisiana homes, and our state is one of the top states with gun-related deaths in adults, and children. In fact, guns in the home are far more likely to injure or kill a family member than an intruder.  Exploring toddlers and children can accidentally shoot themselves.  Despondent teenagers use them to commit suicide. Angry spouses, in the heat of an argument, shoot each other. Guns stolen out of houses and cars are used in further crimes.

I have a shotgun for duck hunting (or more usually, given my aim, “duck scaring”).  However, when my kids were growing up, my gun was stored at my father-in-laws’. Like swimming pools, when there’s kids around, it’s best just not to have them at the house.  If you feel you must have a firearm, keep it locked up, unloaded, with ammunition stored separately.  For home protection, barking dogs are much more effective, and (mostly) safer.  Get one that doesn’t bite!

While pellet guns aren’t great at dispatching larger animals like our dog above, they’re effective against smaller pests.  When rats infest our yard, eating from the bird feeders and freaking out my wife, I’ll phone my brother-in-law.  “Hey, ‘Murder Incorporated,’” I’ll say, “come over with your pellet pistol.”  We’ll swagger around the yard like mafia hit men, and then “cap” the offending rodents.

While in my wife’s book the dirty rats have it coming, firearm threats to humans are another story.  As we mentioned above, guns’ sole design is to kill.  Having one in the house with kids is unsafe.  Depressed teenagers are one high-risk group. Teens are impulsive, one minute rational, the next minute ready to end their misery permanently.  Gun suicide is too easy, too quick, to give teens time for second thoughts.  When in the Emergency Department we see despondent teenagers, we advise removing guns from the home.

Toddlers and school-age children are also high-risk.  These kids are explorers.  When they find a new “toy,” (which they will, no matter how well you hid it) they’ll play with it. My worst encounter was when a DEA agent came home from an overnight stake-out.  Exhausted, he tossed his pistol on the kitchen table and fell in bed.  His five-year-old son woke up soon after, and you can guess the rest.

Regardless how you feel about the National Rifle Association, the NRA has good safety advice for gun owners.  First, if you must have a gun in the house, keep it locked up, unloaded, with the ammunition locked up separately.  When children are old enough, teach them about guns to take away the mystery, and so they learn safety rules.  The NRA advises teaching children that if they come across a stray firearm, they shouldn’t touch it. Instead, they should run away from it and tell a responsible adult.

Some argue that, if my gun is unloaded and locked up, how can I get it out in time if someone invades my home?  The answer: that gun is statistically much more likely to kill the owner or another family member than an intruder.  If you want real home protection, get a dog.  Dogs are much more effective stranger deterrence, and are cuter too.

Guns or Dogs?

With the recent Grand theater shooting, I realized I hadn’t written about gun safety, so it’s overdue.  But I don’t like talking about gun tragedies since I spent a week on the trauma team in third year of medical school.  That week we had three incidents of children coming into the trauma room, dying of gunshot wounds.  The third child was the 5 year-old son of a DEA agent, who had come home from an overnight stake out.  Exhausted, he tossed his pistol on the kitchen table and crashed in bed.  The son woke up sometime later, and you can guess the rest.

I don’t like talking about guns and kids, but as my priest said this past Sunday, a real conversation on guns is overdue. Pediatric firearms deaths aren’t a single event like at the Grand either, but an ongoing problem.  Twice as many children and teens die from gunshots as die from cancer.

Preventing firearm tragedies begins at home, where most deaths occur.  In the past I have discussed how to best prevent your child from drowning in a pool- don’t have one.  Same with guns- it’s best just not to have one in the house.  I own a shotgun, but while my kids were growing up I kept it at my father-in-law’s.

If you must have a gun in the house (we’ll discuss the statistics of that further on), keep it locked in a gun safe, unloaded, with the ammunition locked separately. Regardless of your position on the National Rifle Association (NRA), they advocate this. The NRA has another good idea about safety- teach your kids about guns, to take away the mystery. Teach them to not touch, and even run away from, unattended guns (like at a friend’s house) and immediately tell an adult about unsecure guns.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises doctors to discuss gun safety at office visits, just like above.  Except in Florida, where the legislature and governor passed a law forbidding pediatricians from doing just that.  You would think that that’s unconstitutional, given the right to free speech and a doctor’s duty to ensure child safety. Discussing gun safety is akin to discussing safely storing ant poison.  Inexplicably, two courts have ruled in favor of the law, which illustrates how far afield the gun debate has gone.

Fortunately we’re in Louisiana, so talking gun safety is okay.  As we discussed, it’s best not to have a gun in the house at all.  When my kids were little I kept my shotgun at my father-in-law’s.  When my son became curious about guns, his uncles and I took him hunting to teach him firearm safety.  Our favorite memory is of Uncle Tommy taking him on a squirrel hunt.  They rode the four-wheeler through the woods, zigzagging in the brush for so long that my son thought he was clear to Bunkie, though they ended up only 100 yards from the house.  My son never even touched the rifle, but he learned all about it.

If you have a gun in the house, keep it locked in a gun safe, unloaded, with the ammunition locked away separately.   But keeping it locked doesn’t make sense, some will say. What if someone breaks into my house- the gun won’t be ready!  The statistics are clear: violent home invasions are rare, and guns in the house are much more likely to kill the owner or a family member than an intruder.  Accidental deaths and suicides from home firearms are far more common than successful home defenses.  It’s better to get a dog with a deep, loud bark.

Finally, as any responsible gun owner will say, you must know the laws of ownership and use.  Particularly, as Seth Fontenot unfortunately found out, it’s illegal to use a firearm to stop a robbery.  One of my nurses who is an ex-marine and hunter puts it this way: if someone goes into your garage and starts walking away with your stuff right in front of you, you can’t use a gun to stop them.  You can call 911, and start taking stuff out of his car and putting it back in your garage, but no guns!

Again, better to have a big loud dog.