Prevent injuries & deaths by handling, storing guns safely
Every year in the U.S., tens of thousands of people die from gun-related injuries — including not just homicides and suicides, but also some accidental injuries that are entirely preventable.
The most recent data reviewed by the Pew Research Center showed that in 2021, nearly 50,000 Americans died from gun-related injuries — and Douglas County is by no means immune to the problem of firearm injuries and deaths.
“There are a number of firearm injuries in Douglas County each year, and a handful of those are accidental,” said Johnathan Jurgensmeier, a sergeant with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.
Jurgensmeier, who is also a range master for the sheriff’s office, said that although accidental shootings aren’t common, they can end in tragedy. In his class, he teaches new recruits and the public four main rules of firearm safety:
• Treat every firearm as if it’s loaded.
• Never point a firearm at anything you don’t intend to destroy.
• Keep your finger off the trigger until you’ve made the conscious decision to shoot.
• Be sure of your target, what’s behind it and beyond. Know what you’re aiming at.
Firearm safety extends beyond knowing how to responsibly handle a firearm. It requires an understanding of the risks that come with firearm injuries.
Kenna Young has been a nurse with LMH Health for 18 years, serving as trauma coordinator since 2013. She said that many firearm injuries can be treated locally, but it depends on the type of injury a patient suffered.
“If someone was shot in the hand or grazed by a bullet, we can likely treat those wounds in the emergency department at LMH Health,” she said. “More critical injuries may need to be transferred out to a higher level of care. Some minor injuries may also need to be transferred because we may not have that specialty on staff.”
Handling firearms safely
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, four in 10 adults in the United States say they live in a household that has a gun. Whether it’s your own home or someone else’s, many people will be in a home that contains a firearm at some point, whether they know it or not.
“It’s important that you understand that information, because as a parent, your child may come into contact with someone who has a gun in their house,” Young said. “Even kids under the age of 3 can pick up a gun. We’ve had kids with severe injuries and some who have died that could have been prevented with guns being out of reach or stored safely. Just be open and aware about the fact that they’re there.”
Given how dangerous handling firearms can be and the potential for serious injury, Jurgensmeier encourages everyone to practice safety measures for handling firearms and ammunition.
“Keep firearms unloaded and in a locked cabinet or gun safe. You can always double up with a gun lock,” he said. “Ammunition should always be stored separately from firearms.”
This is especially important when mental health is brought into the equation. According to Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health, firearms were involved in almost half of all suicides in Douglas County from 2013 to 2017. Those numbers have remained steady through 2020.
“People expressing suicidal ideation who have access to firearms presents a significant challenge,” said George Diepenbrock, public information officer for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. “78% of all firearm deaths in Douglas County over the past five years are due to suicide.”
Matthew Miller is the co-director of the Harvard Injury Control Center, a research center at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health dedicated to studying injury prevention. He says temporarily removing lethal means from someone in crisis greatly reduces the likelihood of that person dying by suicide.
“If you make it harder for someone to reach for a gun, you can save their life at that moment and in the long run as well,” he said. “Secure storage of guns reduces suicide risk.”
What about gun locks?
A gun lock can be used to render a firearm inoperable. They fall into two widely available types — cable and trigger locks.
Cable locks can be used on most firearms and work by threading a cable through the barrel of the weapon. These locks can also be used to lock a gun to a solid object.
Trigger locks block the trigger but do not prevent loading ammunition. A trigger lock should not ever be used on a loaded gun because it can cause it to fire under certain circumstances.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office partners with Project Child Safe, a nationwide organization that provides free gun locks for participating agencies to distribute. If you’re outside Douglas County, visit projectchildsafe.org to see what law enforcement organizations near you participate in the program. Call the Sheriff’s Office at 785-841-0007 for more information.
“If you’d like to obtain a gun lock, they’re available — just ask,” Jurgensmeier said, adding they are also readily available through many retailers for less than $10.
What if someone is shot?
Storing firearms safely is just part of the equation when it comes to keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. Knowing what you should do if a firearm injury occurs is key.
“The No. 1 preventable cause of death in a trauma situation is due to bleeding,” Young said. “If you can stop it, the patient has a better chance of survival.”
There are multiple ways to control bleeding in an emergency, including applying direct pressure, packing the wound with bleeding-control gauze and applying a tourniquet. Programs like Stop the Bleed, a collaborative effort led by the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma, aim to provide knowledge about bleeding control to the public.
Stop the Bleed was influenced by the military, health care and world events, including the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The program was launched by the White House in October 2015 with a call to action to begin training more people to become immediate responders until professional help arrives.
Stop the Bleed is a free, interactive course with both online and hands-on components. LMH Health is offering the hands-on portion on Thursday, May 25. Sign up at lmh.org/events and find additional dates and times at stopthebleed.org/training.
— Autumn Bishop is the marketing manager and content strategist at LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.