We Were Wrong: More American Children Die From Accidental Shootings Than We Originally Thought

The numbers remain small, compared to other types of gun fatalities, but such deaths are especially tragic and, according to research, easily preventable.
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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

When President Barack Obama announced last week his plans for reducing gun deaths, Pacific Standard wrote about the science that generally backed his proposed policies. There was one exception: Obama said he was going to work with private companies to improve "childproof" gun technology, such as fingerprint readers that would allow only a gun's owner to fire it. Because the number of young children who die every year from accidental shootings is comparatively small, we wrote, such laws may not make a large statistical impact, although it is, of course, important to prevent such tragedies. We based our conclusion on an accidental gun-death count from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As it turns out, our assessment was somewhat flawed.

The official government tally—69 deaths among children younger than 15 in 2013—likely undercounts the true number of children who die from gun accidents by half, according to an investigation published by the New York Times in 2013. According to CDC estimates, 538 children under 15 were injured as a result of gun accidents in 2013 alone, and 9,818 were injured between 2001 and 2013.

Between 2001 and 2013, 9,818 kids under 15 were shot by accident and survived.

No statistics exist for how often American children in particular accidentally injure or kill someone by shooting; some of the accidental gun injuries the CDC counted may have originated from adults. Among the hundreds of shootings analyzed by the Times, however, many involved a child finding and playing with a gun in a house, then accidentally shooting himself, or a friend or relative about the same age.

Ultimately, the numbers of children accidentally killed by guns remains comparatively small. "But accidents, more than the other firearm-related deaths, come with endless hypotheticals about what could have been done differently," reporters Michael Luo and Mike McIntire wrote for the Times. That's where legislation can play a role.

As we wrote last week, Obama's proposal relies on technology that's too new to have been studied much, but existing research suggests certain firearms storage practices help keep kids safer, including keeping guns locked and unloaded, and storing weapons and their ammunition separately. We should also note that many studies have found that gun safety education programs don't always get kids to stop playing with guns.

A sensible policy aimed at reducing children's gun deaths should, at the very least, aim at getting gun owners to store their firearms in ways that we know work to protect kids. Unfortunately, the Times assessment noted that, historically, gun storage laws have faced a lot of opposition, although some states have passed them.

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