How Common Are Child Gun Accidents?

By Robert VerBruggen

The New York Times has a big new investigation on the topic, and some left-leaning bloggers have been going out of their way to highlight horrifying anecdotes about children and firearms lately. The NYT's major finding is that about half of accidental child firearm deaths are misclassified in the statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control.

Obviously, this is a huge problem in terms of data collection. But the report's authors seem to think it's also a game-changer in terms of how we should think about accidental gun death, which gun-rights supporters have argued is very rare. (See yours truly in National Review here.) The authors don't provide too many actual comparisons, though -- they just say that adjusting for the reporting problem would make guns rise from the ninth-leading cause of unintentional child death to the fifth or sixth. And strikingly, despite looking at data from four states dating back to 1999, from a fifth state dating back to 2007, and from several smaller jurisdictions that make records available, the authors produced just 259 cases in which a child 14 or younger was accidentally killed with a firearm.

So, let's do some more detailed statistical work. According to the CDC, about 5 in every 100,000 children ages 1 to 14 die from accidental injuries every year. (This is a pretty low number in terms of lifetime risks; accidental deaths skyrocket when you hit the 15-19 age group.) Here are the top ten causes in chart form; I've included both the CDC's number for guns and an adjusted number (double that):

You can see by looking at the X axis that guns do, indeed, move up several places in the rankings when you double the number. But you can see from the Y axis that gun accidents remain a rare cause of unintentional death for children. More than half of such deaths are from cars and water, and shuffling the rankings below fourth place doesn't really change the overall picture. The official CDC stat is that 0.11 in every 100,000 children die from gun accidents every year; doubling that brings it to 0.22 -- just 4.4 percent of the overall rate of 5 per 100,000, in a country in which around 40 percent of households have guns.

The adjusted figure (124 deaths per year) is not even a disproportionate number of the total fatal gun accidents in the U.S. each year -- about 600 according to CDC data, plus 62 for the NYT adjustment for misreported child accidents, plus an unknown number to account for the fact that adult accidents are sometimes misreported too. About 19 percent of the U.S. population is between the ages of 1 and 14, so even if adult accidents are reported perfectly, children make up a lower proportion of gun-accident deaths than you'd expect based purely on population. (I imagine age makes a big difference in terms of how accidents happen, though: Kids rarely have access to guns but misuse them when they do; adults have access whenever they want it and are sometimes careless.)

Further, while the accidental-death risk posed by guns is undoubtedly higher than the risk posed by some other optional household products (e.g. even trampolines cause very few deaths), we tolerate much higher risks in certain items, especially residential swimming pools, which account for about three-quarters of child drowning deaths. Steven Levitt famously calculated that a swimming pool on your property is 100 times more likely than a gun to kill your child by accident; make the NYT adjustment, and it's still 50 times. And swimming pools don't pose the constitutional and self-defense tradeoffs that guns do.

The adjusted number also pales in comparison with the 11,000 gun and 5,000 non-gun homicides that take place each year in this country, the total U.S. population of over 300 million, and the number of guns here (which is also around 300 million).

Of course, none of this is to say that 124 lives per year aren't worth saving, but it's hard to see how we could make such a rare event even rarer -- if the risk of killing a child (often one's own child) isn't motivation enough for a gun owner to behave responsibly, a law against having unlocked guns around kids might not matter, either, though perhaps we should regulate and prosecute negligent behavior more in the interest of justice. And the most dramatic solutions -- making all gun owners lock their weapons up even when children aren't around, mandating expensive technology to keep everyone but a gun's owner from firing it -- raise Second Amendment concerns and could make guns harder to use in self-defense.

The simple fact is that when it comes to accidents that kill children, the heart of the problem lies in cars, water, and fires -- and that when it comes to firearms, the heart of the problem lies in what people do intentionally. Statistically speaking, the issue of kids who die in gun accidents has received far more attention than it should.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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