Young child (4-6) reaching for a handgun

Gun, Fire, and Car Safety Practices in Homes with Small Children Linked to Rates of Parental Depression

Taryn Morrissey’s work has been published in numerous national journals, such as Child Development, Developmental Psychology, and The Journal of Marriage and Family. But her work doesn’t stop with the written word.

An Assistant Professor in School of Public Affairs at AU, she takes the lessons she’s learned from her research and puts it to good use aiding Congress.

Morrissey joined the SPA faculty in 2010, but for 18 months starting in January of 2013, she was on leave to put her knowledge to work at the Department of Health and Human Services. She served as Senior Adviser to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Services Policy, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

She also has experience working with child health policy, through the President’s Early Learning Initiative, and as a health policy adviser on the staff of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, under Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. Tom Harkin.

The research Morrissey pursues to inform her policy recommendations centers on examining and improving public policy for vulnerable children by researching family behaviors. Most recently, she investigated a link between parental depression and home safety for children in regards to major hazards such as fire, car, and gun safety. The results were published online through the Maternal and Child Health Journal on January 5th, 2016, and can be used immediately to inform policy on hot-button issues such as gun control.

Her cross-section was limited to families with young children—those aged zero to five—using the nationally recognized Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. Her research revealed that for these families, when at least one parent exhibited symptoms of clinical depression, the home was less safe in all of the above areas. But when both parents showed signs of depression, the effect only increased.

Perhaps an even more important finding that this research brought to light was that one in five of the households sampled owned at least one firearm, but only about two-thirds of them kept the weapons secured consistently. When the household had two depressive parents, it was two to six percent more likely to have at least one gun within the home. Interestingly, depressive fathers were less likely to own a weapon, but more likely to store it unsafely. Given that around a third of these families left their firearms unsecured at least some of the time, Morrissey found the topic of immediate interest for the safety of children, family members, and those outside the home.

Currently, the NRA promotes bills across the country that forbid pediatricians from talking to parents about gun safety measures; Morrissey advocates the opposite in her published findings. Her article closes by suggesting that “early interventions to identify and treat parental depression may help promote appropriate safety behaviors among families with young children.”

The figures she uncovered are particularly relevant post Sandy Hook and the 173 other school shootings since (figure includes accidental shootings), and an interest in such recent events prompted her to pursue the study.

87% of gun-related fatalities in the developed world for persons under 14 years of age are from residents of the United States. While Morrissey avoids placing blame, her work does consider the home component of this statistic. In the home space, accidents are a crucial component of firearm safety: availability of guns in the home, secured or unsecured, significantly increases unintentional gun death among young children, whether it is them, a sibling, or a playmate. These types of deaths could be prevented through proper parental education, especially if depressive parents are identified, as her findings suggest they are more at-risk for unsafe behaviors across the board, as well as in firearm safety. In turn, thoughtful, informed policy in the nation’s capital and elsewhere could produce this effect: states with stronger gun safety laws have, understandably, less gun-related fatalities, particularly among children.

Morrissey believes the impacts of neighborhood poverty and family instability are adverse to children’s development, and her January findings have led her to call for change. It is in the public’s interest for physicians to screen for depression among new parents and to increase public education about the risks of gun, fire, and car safety for at-risk groups to reduce the unnecessarily high numbers of gun deaths perpetuated by young children and their families.



Learn more about the groundbreaking work happening in the School of Public Affairs at American University.



6 replies
  1. Rachel says:

    It’s so important that parents teach safe gun practices to their children. It’s interesting to see that states with tougher gun laws have lower gun-related fatalities. Thanks for sharing this research.

  2. American Classifieds says:

    Perhaps, education via parent-teachers event, and local media (online or offline) would help. Nowadays, parents may not be matured enough or lack of awareness about safety practices.


  3. Diyet Listeleri says:

    I agree with Braden. We need to be more careful about this. Also because they are our children.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Braden Bills says:

    I think it’s very important to make sure that your children know about gun, fire, and car safety. There’s a lot of things that they can accidentally do surrounding those topics. It’s better to be safe than sorry, I say. Thanks for sharing!


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