(Reuters Health) - Most firearm safety courses cover basics such as safely loading and unloading a gun, but few instructors address suicide prevention, domestic violence or prevention of gun theft, according to a study focused on the U.S. Northeast.
“More than half of gun owners say they’ve received gun training,” said lead author David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “We wanted to know if what’s in the training manuals is actually being taught.”
Hemenway and colleagues created a checklist of topics based on advice from expert firearm safety instructors and existing training manuals.
In 2014-2016, 14 adult volunteers attended basic handgun safety classes for civilians in seven states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Three of the states (Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) require training before receiving a concealed carry permit, gun license or permit to purchase. They also require background checks or proof that the buyer has a gun permit for private gun sales. The other four states (Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Vermont) have more permissive gun laws that include no basic firearm training requirements, the authors note online October 7 in Injury Prevention.
The research team audited a total of 20 firearm training courses, including 12 in the states with training requirements and 8 in the states without requirements. They looked for more than 70 topics that could be covered during classes, such as firearm anatomy, firearm operation, firearm laws, gun storage, gun accident prevention, self-defense gun use, suicide prevention, firearm statistics, gun theft prevention and live fire practice.
“We didn’t do this study as a ‘gotcha.’ We looked for any kind of training and variability and didn’t judge by quality,” Hemenway said. “Our goal is to figure out ways that public health workers and gun trainers can work together to reduce issues.”
Overall, the training courses lasted an average of six hours and cost about $130. Most included a live fire component about 40 minutes long. Only two safety topics - pointing the gun muzzle in the safest direction and keeping one’s finger off the trigger until ready to shoot - were covered 100% of the time.
About 95% of courses covered basic pistol anatomy and how to check whether a gun is loaded, and 90% explained how to load and unload a gun and be sure of both a target and who or what may be beyond it. About 50% to 75% explained how to operate a gun lock, operate a safety, clear jams and handle cartridge malfunctions.
About 80% of the training sessions discussed relevant state laws regarding licensing and permitting, and 50% to 70% covered liability laws, child access prevention rules and state and federal disqualifications for gun possession. In addition, 90% discussed using a gun safe, the study authors found.
However, the study team writes, only two out of 20 instructors, or 10%, discussed the topic of guns being involved in suicide or domestic violence at all.
Similarly, just 20% mentioned that gun theft is a major source of guns used in crimes.
“The overwhelming majority of gun rights advocacy groups, medical and public health professional organizations and the American people believe that learning about firearm safety can be an important step in preventing firearm injuries,” said Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar of the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Unfortunately, our knowledge about what is actually taught in firearm training classes is severely limited,” he told Reuters Health by email, adding that this study highlights the gaps.
“We can do better to expand content by incorporating components that have notable public health significance, such as suicide prevention and theft prevention,” Rowhani-Rahbar said. “This goal has the potential to save lives and prevent injuries.”
Inj Prev 2017.