The region’s only Level 1 trauma center treats just a handful of accidental shooting victims a month, but they leave a lasting mark on the nurses and surgeons who care for them — especially when they’re children.
“It’s not common, but when it happens you remember the accidental injuries that involve preschool age children,” says Dr. John Bilello, chief of pediatric trauma at Community Regional Medical Center and a clinical professor of surgery at UCSF Fresno. “To me, there’s no excuse for having a 3-year-old find a gun under a mattress or in a sock drawer, because kids explore. That’s what they do.”
Dr. Bilello would prefer to never have to treat those kinds of accidents again, so he bought 150 cable gun locks to help jump-start a gun safety program through Community Medical Centers’ pediatric clinics and to emergency department patients. “I wish I could buy everyone in Fresno a gun safe, but they are very expensive,” Dr. Bilello says. “The cable locks are just a bare minimum, a firewall. But it’s better than nothing, especially with little kids.”
The free gun lock distribution is part of Community’s trauma prevention program, which also does education and outreach on child car seat safety, bicycle and pedestrian safety, the dangers of distracted driving for teens, and smarter driving tips for older adults. Violence and injury prevention has been identified as among our region’s top health needs; violent crime rates, accidental injuries of children and child abuse rates in Fresno County continue to top statewide rates.
Project ChildSafe federal grant provides free cable locks
“What’s alarming is there are a lot of guns in this community,” says Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama. “Most of them are illegal guns and they can easily get into the hands of children and gangs.” The Fresno Police Department has partnered with Community to provide even more free firearm cable locks to give to patients.
“We just recently acquired 10,000 gun locks through a federal grant and Project ChildSafe,” explains Chief Balderrama. “All we have to do is get these out to the public. What this partnership allows us to do is put these gun locks in a very accessible location. It’s very exciting for me because our mission is to help the public and the hospital has the same mission … we’re on the same page with this.”
Cable locks can be used on most firearms, including rifles. They offer security from theft and still allow for quick access in an emergency.
“These gun locks do not take a whole lot of training to use and put on your gun,” adds Balderrama. After unloading a firearm, the cable runs through the barrel or action of a firearm and out the slide to prevent it from being accidentally fired. Once locked, the cable requires either a key or combination to unlock it.
“This little tool can make a firearm safe,” says Chief Balderrama holding up a handful of cable locks. “And if a child comes across it, they have no way of putting a round in the chamber or firing it or hurting themselves.”
Gun safety now part of patient screening
Asking about gun ownership and how guns are stored is becoming more routine in regular patient screenings, says Dr. Bilello. “We screen people when they come in to the ER … We take the opportunity to ask questions that may help prevent more injuries. We ask if there is domestic violence. If they come in altered by alcohol or drugs, we do a brief intervention and ask if they need help and if they want to be connected to AA.”
Now patients will be asked if they own a gun and if they want a cable lock to secure their gun to prevent accidents.
“I think well child appointments and new baby appointments are the best place for this,” says Dr. Bilello, who started in medicine as a pediatrician. “We are used to asking about what temperature your water heater is set at, because if it’s over 120 degrees a kid can get burned. We ask, ‘Do you have a child safety seat for your car? Do you have all your poisons under the kitchen sink easily accessible or are they locked up?’”
Having conversations about child safety in regular pediatric check-ups takes the politics out of asking about gun ownership and opens the door to educating about responsibilities, he adds.
“It’s actually state law that if you’re going to own a gun, you have to keep it out of the reach of small children,” Chief Balderrama explains. “You have to secure it properly. And there are consequences if you don’t. The reason the law exists is so we can prevent kids getting seriously hurt and even killed.”
Best prevention is education and removing temptation
During the pandemic there have been more worries about suicides increasing due to social isolation and grief, says Eliana Troncale, Community’s trauma prevention specialist. She participates in the Central Valley Suicide Prevention coalition. Easy access to guns increases the worry that teens in distress may follow through on their impulses, she says.
“We have seen that shootings have doubled in 2020,” confirms Chief Balderrama. “With no schools, and businesses and public venues locked down, kids are at home and bored with not a lot to do. I think now more than ever, it’s important to educate our children and make sure they can’t come across these firearms.”
Dr. Bilello agrees that education is key and cable locks can only go so far. “Cable locks and gun locks are not a panacea. The best prevention is not leaving a loaded gun in your house that you think no one can find. Kids find everything.”
He lists the basic rules everyone who owns a gun should follow and teach their children:
Treat every weapon as if it’s always loaded
Don’t point a gun at anything you don’t wish to shoot
Guns are not toys
Never use a gun if you are drunk or altered
Find an adult if you come across a firearm
A cable lock and educating more parents about responsible gun ownership might stop the next accident. “I feel like it’s just taking a few drops of water out of the ocean,” Dr. Bilello says. “But I feel like it is something, just something, we can do that might save the next 3-year-old.”
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Our mission of improving the health of our region is dependent on making healthcare accessible to all and working in whatever ways we can to help prevent illness and injury. We invest in facilities, expertise, research and technology so everyone, regardless of their circumstances, has access to top-level care. We also reach out to support those in our community making a difference to lower rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness and violence. Read more stories.