Kids and Guns, Parents and Drugs

Journalists are misrepresenting a new study about the number of children killed every year by firearms.
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(PHOTO: X-RAY PICTURES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: X-RAY PICTURES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

My colleague Lauren Kirchner is one of many folks who covered a newly released study which finds that some 7,700 American kids are wounded and more than 500 killed by guns every year, and that those numbers are going up. Scores of news outlets and blogs from CNN to Breitbart.com breathlessly repeated these stats, all under headlines with some variation on the notion of "500 Children Die...."

I wonder how the number of parents legally sanctioned for endangering their kids by leaving guns around compares to the number who are sanctioned for endangering their kids by abusing drugs?

Those stats are appalling, of course. On closer look, though, the story isn't quite as dire as most journalists, who appear to have done little more than parrot the study's press release, made it out to be. For starters, there's the question of what the authors mean by "child." The clear impression given by almost all of the coverage I looked at is that they're talking about what most folks think of when they hear that word—i.e., prepubescent tykes. But the study actually almost certainly includes teenagers—anyone under age 18 being legally a "child." This becomes clear if you read the researchers' actual paper. In it, they explain that 78 percent of the shootings were assaults, not accidents. Furthermore, the streets were the most common place for these shootings. So it seems probable that most of these deaths and injuries actually involve teenagers shooting each other in the streets, which is hardly news to anyone who has ever heard the word "gang."

Second, most news outlets picked up the finding that "between 1997 and 2009, child hospitalizations for gunshot wounds increased from 4,270 to 7,730." That's true, but not the whole truth. Again, a close look at the study shows that gun injuries and deaths rose from 1997 to 2006, when they peaked at 8,430 injuries and 565 deaths. The most recent numbers, from 2009, reflect a drop from 2006, not an increase.

I called the study's lead author, Arin L. Madenci of the University of Michigan Medical School-Ann Arbor, to ask him about all this. He told me that he's been rather overwhelmed by the media response, and wouldn't comment on anything in the study other than to say that "our results are still quite preliminary." Too bad the conclusions so many of my fellow journos jumped to were less so.

On a related note: Our own Lauren Kirchner also gives a shout-out to Slate blogger Justin Peters, who argues that "parents who leave unsecured, loaded guns around young children should be prosecuted when that carelessness results in children’s injuries and deaths." Makes sense to me. Such prosecutions do happen occasionally, Peters reports. But I wonder how the number of parents legally sanctioned for endangering their kids by leaving guns around compares to the number who are sanctioned for endangering their kids by abusing drugs? Both are certainly dreadful lapses of judgment if you've got a child under your care. But the one seems much more likely to bring down the authorities on your head than the other. According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, as many as 295,000 parents who use drugs have a child taken away every year. I don't know what the comparable stats are for careless gun-owners, but I'll bet it isn't even close.

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