University of Michigan study engages parents in protecting young children from unintentional shootings

Illustration of a firearm and a lock.

Q&A with Alison Miller

Professor, Health Behavior and Health Education

After teens, young children from birth to 5 years old are the largest age group impacted by unintentional shootings and have the highest number of firearm fatalities in the United States. And an estimated 30 million US children lived in households with firearms

Research is limited on firearm safety perspectives and practices of parents with young children, and a team of researchers from the University of Michigan are working together to better tailor firearm safety approaches and communications to meet the needs of parents.

Called the Supporting All Families through Education and Responsible Management and Storage (SAFE ARMS) study, the three-year CDC-funded research project focuses on understanding how parents think about firearm safety for their young children.

Alison Miller, professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and Hsing-Fang Hsieh, research assistant professor at the university’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention and Michigan Public Health alumna, serve as co-principal investigators of the project.

Here, Miller discusses the project and what the firearm injury prevention researchers hope to learn from their research. 

Why is it important to do this study? What do you hope to learn?

Despite the urgent need to address this issue, there has been limited research to understand firearm safety practices among parents with children aged 0 to 5 years. 

That means that although parents play an important role in keeping their children safe, we don’t know how best to engage parents around these issues. Messaging comes mostly from experts.

So, understanding how parents think about firearm safety for their young children is an important first step in engaging parents in preventing firearm injury. 

Why is it important to engage parents to talk about firearm safety for their young children? 

Parents’ views of the risk for firearm injury may differ from experts’ views, creating challenges in delivering effective firearm injury prevention messaging and promoting firearm safety practices. 

For example, parents who own firearms for protection may prioritize easy access to firearms as most important for safety, while experts may prioritize secure storage as most important for safety. There are data to show that children know where firearms are stored, even when parents think they are hidden. 

We want to identify gaps or misalignments in parents’ views compared to experts’ views in order to craft more effective messaging and enhance safety for young children. The SAFE ARMS study seeks to do just that.

What are the key milestones for the SAFE ARMS study?

The three-year project involves three phases with specific milestones to be achieved:

  • Phase 1 (Survey, Focus Groups and Interviews): Use a combination of research methods to assess parents’ understanding of firearm safety and injury prevention related to their firearm safety practices.
  • Phase 2 (Intervention Development): Translate Phase 1 results to inform an intervention approach designed to increase firearm safety practices among families with young children.
  • Phase 3 (Pilot Testing): Pilot-test the firearm safety intervention using parent-empowerment techniques and peer educators to engage parents of young children. 

You are a developmental psychologist by training. How do you incorporate that aspect of your work into this firearm injury prevention research?

As a developmental psychologist who studies and works with young children and their families, I know how important both child factors and parent expectations can be in shaping family behaviors. 

For example, child factors related to age and development, such as motor skills and physical growth, can enable a young child to climb up high and get places quickly—often more quickly than parents realize. Fine motor skills can allow a young child to grab and manipulate small objects. Unfortunately, in the case of firearms these natural child capacities can have disastrous results if a child gains access to an unlocked firearm—it has been shown that preschoolers have enough finger strength to pull most handgun triggers

Furthermore, we know young children are curious, often persistent, are sometimes not able to control their impulsive behavior, and like to model the behaviors of adults and others. So, if a child sees a firearm they may be eager to touch it and imitate what they have seen others do (including parents, superheroes, cartoons, or other characters in the media).    

Parents of young children are often surprised at their child’s rate of development during the first years of life—indeed, “babyproofing” is the idea of encouraging families to prevent injuries by changing the home environment early (e.g., putting a gate on the stairs when the child is an infant, before the child starts walking). Parents also often marvel at how much their children learn just by watching, even when we don’t think they are watching. For example, children often know where presents or cookies are “hidden” in their households, so if a firearm is stored in a typical “hiding place” where a parent believes it to be hidden, or up high, the child may find it more easily and quickly than a parent may think. 

Unfortunately, children are more likely to be injured when firearms are in the home, especially if they are not stored securely, which is part of the reasoning behind the new Child Access Prevention (CAP) law in Michigan, which requires locked firearm storage when children are present. Policies like these are important as they are associated with fewer child firearm injuries, but we need efforts at multiple levels, including family-focused supports, to keep children safe from unintentional firearm injuries. 

It is therefore critical for researchers to engage parents to understand their perspectives and motivations for gun ownership—often the reason that parents own firearms is to keep their families safe. It is also critical for parents who choose to have firearms in the home to be aware of child factors and early developmental influences so that they can take preventive action for safe firearm storage, just like babyproofing, to keep their young children safe. 


Destiny CookDestiny Cook

Senior Public Relations Specialist
University of Michigan School of Public Health