Taking Stock: Teens And Guns

While mental health clinics and therapists across the country say they've seen a surge of younger patients since the Columbine High School massacre, a survey says that a third of all U.S. households have a gun.

The shooting in Littleton, Colo., appears to have stirred concerned parents and educators to seek help for kids they suspect of emotional problems. On April 20, two teen-age boys shot 12 classmates and a teacher before turning the guns on themselves. "It appears that people all across the country are so shaken by this incident that they're not taking any chances," said Erin Somers, a spokeswoman for Magellan Behavioral Health, which refers 64 million adults and children to mental-health programs annually.
Magellan, based in Columbia, Md., said its calls in May jumped 25 percent compared to the previous year.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has seen calls to its referral service more than double over the first five months of 1999.

The massacre in Littleton followed other fatal school-related shootings in Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., Edinboro, Pa., and Springfield, Ore.

"People and schools have become more aware that mental illness is out there," said Mary, whose 12-year-old son threatened another student and was diagnosed as manic-depressive shortly before the Littleton shootings. The secretary from Alexandria, Va., asked that her full name not be used.

Her son, Danny, told a fellow sixth-grader at his school last December that he planned to "get a gun and kill her." That got Danny suspended for five days. At the time, even though he was being treated for depression, no one knew he suffered from bipolar disorder, a disease that produces extreme mood swings.

"Now since Littleton, the school is more aware that kids suffer from mental illness," said Mary. "If it happened now, they would have demanded Danny get a psychological evaluation before coming back to school." And she believes Danny would have gotten help sooner.

Meanwhile, according to a survey published Monday, a third of all U.S. families keep a gun in the home or a vehicle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it got the finding from a 1994 telephone poll of 5,238 households, which also revealed that about 22 percent of those owning guns keep them loaded and unlocked.

The poll was published in the June issue of the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, a publication of the American Medical Association.

Researchers said they found that 33 percent of those surveyed had a "working, powder firearm." Pellet guns, tear gas guns and antique or display firearms were not included.

Ninety-five percent of the gun owners also gave information on how they stored their weapons. Nearly 22 percent -- the equivalent of 6.8 million households -- said they kept at least one gun loaded and unlocked.

"These...data show that children are potentially exosed to firearms in many households," the report said. "This health threat illustrates the need for education about the issue of pediatric firearm injuries and for interventions to minimize associated risks."

The poll was taken in 1994 but the data was not processed until the following year and the study was not accepted for publication until now.