Students are walked out of East High School following a shooting, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Denver. Authorities say two school administrators were shot and wounded after a handgun was found during a daily search of a student at a Denver high school. The suspect remained at large. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER | One in 4 Colorado teens reported they could get access to a loaded gun within 24 hours, according to survey results published Monday. Nearly half of those teens said it would take them less than 10 minutes.

“That’s a lot of access and those are short periods of time,” said Virginia McCarthy, a doctoral candidate at the Colorado School of Public Health and the lead author of the research letter describing the findings in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The results come as Coloradans are reeling from yet another school shooting. On March 22, a 17-year-old student shot and wounded two school administrators at East High School in Denver. Police later found his body in the mountains west of Denver in Park County and confirmed he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Another East High student was fatally shot in February while sitting in his car outside the school.

The time it takes to access a gun matters, McCarthy said, particularly for suicide attempts, which are often impulsive decisions for teens. In research studying people who have attempted suicide, nearly half said the time between ideation and action was less than 10 minutes. Creating barriers to easy access, such as locking up guns and storing them unloaded, extends the time before someone can act on an impulse, and increases the likelihood that they will change their mind or that someone will intervene.

“The hope is to understand access in such a way that we can increase that time and keep kids as safe as possible,” McCarthy said.

The data McCarthy used comes from the Healthy Kids Colorado Study, a survey conducted every two years with a random sampling of 41,000 students in middle and high school. The 2021 survey asked, “How long would it take you to get and be ready to fire a loaded gun without a parent’s permission?”

American Indian students in Colorado reported the greatest access to a loaded gun, at 39%, including 18% saying they could get one within 10 minutes, compared with 12% of everybody surveyed. American Indian and Native Alaskan youths also have the highest rates of suicide.

Nearly 40% of students in rural areas reported having access to firearms, compared with 29% of city residents.

The findings were released at a particularly tense moment in youth gun violence in Colorado. Earlier this month, hundreds of students left their classrooms and walked nearly 2 miles to the state Capitol to advocate for gun legislation and safer schools. The students returned to confront lawmakers again last week in the aftermath of the March 22 high school shooting.

The state legislature is considering a handful of bills to prevent gun violence, including raising the minimum age to purchase or possess a gun to 21; establishing a three-day waiting period for gun purchases; limiting legal protections for gun manufacturers and sellers; and expanding the pool of who can file for extreme risk protection orders to have guns removed from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearms became the leading cause of death among those ages 19 or younger in 2020, supplanting motor vehicle deaths. And firearm deaths among children increased during the pandemic, with an average of seven children a day dying because of a firearm incident in 2021.

Colorado has endured a string of school shootings over the past 25 years, including at Columbine High School in 1999, Platte Canyon High School in 2006, Arapahoe High School in 2013, and the STEM School Highlands Ranch in 2019.

Although school shootings receive more attention, the majority of teen gun deaths are suicides.

“Youth suicide is starting to become a bigger problem than it ever has been,” said Dr. Paul Nestadt, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

“Part of that has to do with the fact that there’s more and more guns that are accessible to youth.”

While gun ownership poses a higher risk of suicide among all age groups, teens are particularly vulnerable, because their brains typically are still developing impulse control.

“A teen may be bright and know how to properly handle a firearm, but that same teen in a moment of desperation may act impulsively without thinking through the consequences,” said Dr. Shayla Sullivant, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “The decision-making centers of the brain are not fully online until adulthood.”

Previous research has shown a disconnect between parents and their children about access to guns in their homes. A 2021 study found that 70% of parents who own firearms said their children could not get their hands on the guns kept at home. But 41% of kids from those same families said they could get to those guns within two hours.

“Making the guns inaccessible doesn’t just mean locking them. It means making sure the kid doesn’t know where the keys are or can’t guess the combination,” said Catherine Barber, a senior researcher at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, who was not involved in the study. “Parents can forget how easily their kids can guess the combination or watch them input the numbers or notice where the keys are kept.”

If teens have their own guns for hunting or sport, those, too, should be kept under parental control when the guns are not actively being used, she said.

The Colorado researchers now plan to dig further to find out where teens are accessing guns in hopes of tailoring prevention strategies to different groups of students.

“Contextualizing these data a little bit further will help us better understand types of education and prevention that can be done,” McCarthy said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to th

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  1. Okay, the data from the study is not really shocking. Let’s say it’s all accurate. It gets into everything from child parenting to a youngster’s decision- making brain stimulus. All good stuff.  The one thing that is not seemed to be brought out is these guns any of them and their ownership to these kids come by means of a legal channel?  No, I don’t see that. So, rules mandated anywhere and to everyone else doesn’t really apply. The rules made and followed by legal gun ownership, the tools in place do not share any of the same ground as these kids wanting their fast gun. But lawmakers want more control of legal gun ownership. These kids are lawbreakers- SO?  This article points to, and leads to the fallacy, and delusion lawmakers suffer from.          

  2. Have we figured out it is not the tool thats to blame, its the WOKE raising of our young that is???

    1. We have a moral obligation to “stay woke,” take a stand and be active; challenging injustices and racism in our communities and fighting hatred and discrimination wherever it rises.
      —Barbara Lee

  3. I see this as a commendation for the thousands of responsible teenagers who choose NOT to weaponize their schools or social events. I also feel that a murderer is a murderer irrespective of age and disagree with the apologists who claim its the fault of society or racial bias or police activity. Responsibility begins with family, children or teenagers who use weapons ,I believe, come from families with distorted values. Parents should be positive role models and not flatulent apologists for bad behaviour.

    1. The problem is: parents. They are generally incompetent, uncaring, uninvolved, unknowingly ignorant, selfish and out of touch. Those that aren’t sometimes get lucky with their children. But other times, not????

  4. One in eight Colorado teenagers can get access to a gun in under 10 minutes? Man, are WE behind the curve. When I was growing up one state west, in Utah, well over half the teens I knew had access to guns. The schools considered a “shooting problem” to be the adjustments to classes they had to make because so many of us teenagers were out on the first day of Hunting Season. If a student got shot it was usually because [s]he wasn’t wearing a high-visibilty hunting outfit, and it was probably by one of the out-of-state newbies who had NOT been hunting every year since age 12! (I was just such a newbie, so I did not participate then. I didn’t get my Hunters’ Safety Course card until I was 14.)

  5. 99 out of 100 teens have access to a knife, 92.5% have access to a motor vehicle. What difference does it make? Nanny state. Take away RIGHTS to make sheep feel safe.

    1. “Feel” is the operative word. We hear it over and over from the kids, progressive urban parents, and even criminal apologists. But feeling safe is nothing without being safe. And the only way to achieve that is by hardening the targets, stopping the coddling of young known offenders, locking up the worst, and removing those who pose a threat to the general population in public schools. Every parent should at least know when a dangerous child is sitting at the desk next to their own.

  6. This survey can’t be accurate. The Dems passed safe storage of firearms laws so they solved this problem. Everyone always follows all the laws, especially majority Democrat Denver!

  7. Know a guy who left loaded guns throughout his house with 3 young boys. When I questioned the fact, he said that they knew better then to touch one. Yeah.

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