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Should I let my teen have a BB gun? Add to ...

The question: My husband wants to buy my son a BB gun, but I am concerned about safety. What do you think?

The answer: Recently I saw a young teenage boy in my clinic who was wearing an eye patch. When I inquired about the injury, he told me that he and a friend were using a BB gun to do target practice when his friend’s errant shot ricocheted off a hard surface striking my patient in the eye. At this point it is still too soon to know if the damage will be temporary or permanent, but the incident did serve as a powerful reminder about the potential risks associated with firearms.

Unlike hand guns and rifles, non-powder firearms such as BB guns, air guns, and paintball guns are not regulated by federal gun control legislation. Nevertheless, bullets from these guns can reach significant speeds, great enough to break the skin and cause tissue damage, and certainly fast enough to cause severe damage to the eyes. As such, appropriate head and eye protection is critical at all times when using BB guns and air guns.

The sport of paintball has become very popular in recent years. Paintballs are powered by compressed gas and reach speeds more than twice that needed to permanently damage an eye. If your teen is interested in playing paintball, ensure that the paintball arena where he will be playing is reputable and that appropriate head and eye protection is mandatory. Not surprisingly, most BB and paintball injuries occur at home when eye protection is not being worn (as was the case with my patient) or is being worn inappropriately.

This is probably a good opportunity to also remind readers about the risks of storing rifles and handguns in the home. Research has shown that having a firearm in the home is associated with higher rates of homicide and suicide compared to homes without a firearm. For that reason, it is always safest for firearms not be stored in homes where there are children or teens. This is critically important when there is a teen with depression or if there is a family history of depression or suicide. The presence of a firearm in the home has been found to be a strongly correlated with successful adolescent suicide. In homes where a firearm must be present, proper storage with the gun unloaded, locked, and ammunition stored separately is critical.

So think twice before purchasing a BB gun. If your husband insists on the purchase, ensure that proper eye protection is worn by all people present when the gun is being used (not just the shooter), that adult supervision is guaranteed, and that arrangements have been made for safe storage.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He’s a staunch advocate for children’s health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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