LOS ANGELES _ An alarming number of U.S. homes have a dangerous mix of children and unlocked, loaded weapons, according to a new study.
Researchers found that one-third of U.S. homes with children have at least one firearm and nearly half of them keep the weapons unsecured.
Forty-three percent of such homes kept one or more guns in an unlocked place and without trigger locks. Guns were kept loaded as well as unlocked in 9 percent, according to the survey conducted by Rand Corp. and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The study, released Thursday, was reported in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association.
The findings come at a time of heightened awareness over the issue of children's access to firearms and calls for stricter gun laws in the wake of school shootings such as last year's rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado and a 6-year-old's shooting of a classmate in Michigan last month.
Smith & Wesson, the nation's largest gun manufacturer, already has agreed to provide external safety locks on all its handguns within 60 days and internal locks within two years.
"The fact that at least one major gun manufacturer is going to be building safer firearms is good news," said Dr. Mark A. Schuster, a UCLA pediatrician and the study's lead author. "But it's still the responsibility of parents and other adults to keep firearms out of their children's hands."
The study used information from interviews of 45,435 households for the 1994 National Health Interview Survey and additional questioning of 19,374 of those households in a 2000 supplement that included a section covering firearms. The surveys were administered by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Firearms are present in 35 percent of U.S. homes with children _ representing more than 11 million homes with more than 22 million children younger than age 18, according to the study.
The 9 percent of those homes that keep firearms unlocked and loaded would translate into homes with 1.7 million children, researchers found. Another 4 percent of the homes have guns that are unlocked and with ammunition stored nearby.
Just 39 percent of homes with firearms had them locked, unloaded and stored separately from ammunition, the report said.
National Rifle Association lobbyist James J. Baker said he was not surprised by the study and he cited National Safety Council data showing gun accidents at an all-time low.
"We think education and training is the key to reducing figures," Baker said. "Ultimately, families will decide what they feel is best for their particular circumstances."
Rand, the Santa Monica, Calif., think tank, does research on national security, public policy planning, education, health, science and technology.
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