The Overwhelming Empirical Evidence That Guns Endanger Children

Health and medicine explained.
June 17 2014 12:06 AM

Guns Kill Children

The overwhelming evidence that pediatricians are right and the NRA is wrong.

An employee of Armatix poses for photographers as he presents the €œSmartGun.
An Armatix smart gun at the International Weapons trade fair in Nuremberg, Germany, in March 2010.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images.

Caroline Starks was 2 years old. Her 5-year-old brother was playing nearby with his birthday present: a .22-caliber Crickett rifle. His mother stepped outside for a moment, certain the gun wasn’t loaded. She was wrong. Caroline was pronounced dead a few hours later at the Cumberland County Hospital in Kentucky.

Despite harrowing tragedies like Caroline’s death, the National Rifle Association is committed to expanding firearm ownership among children. The NRA’s recent convention in Indianapolis included a “Youth Day” to promote firearms for children, an event from which the media was banned. For years, gun manufacturers and the NRA have marketed firearms to children ages 5 to 12, insisting that programs such as the Eddie Eagle Safety Program ensure the safety of children. If they truly believe this, they are mistaken.

The overwhelming empirical evidence indicates that the presence of a gun makes children less safe; that programs such as Eddie Eagle are insufficient; and that measures the NRA and extreme gun advocates vehemently oppose, such as gun safes and smart guns, could dramatically reduce the death toll. Study after study unequivocally demonstrates that the prevalence of firearms directly increases the risk of youth homicide, suicide, and unintentional death. This effect is consistent across the United States and throughout the world. As a country, we should be judged by how well we protect our children. By any measure, we are failing horribly.

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The United States accounts for nearly 75 percent of all children murdered in the developed world. Children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the United States are 17 times more likely to be murdered by firearms than children in other industrialized nations.

Children from states where firearms are prevalent suffer from significantly higher rates of homicide, even after accounting for poverty, education, and urbanization. A study focusing on youth in North Carolina found that most of these deaths were caused by legally purchased handguns. A recent meta-analysis revealed that easy access to firearms doubled the risk of homicide and tripled the risk for suicide among all household members. Family violence is also much more likely to be lethal in homes where a firearm is present, placing children especially in danger. Murder-suicides are another major risk to children and are most likely to be committed with a gun.

Crucially, these deaths are not offset by defensive gun use. As one study found, for every time a gun is used legally in self-defense at home, there are “four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.” A study of adolescents in California found that there were 13 times as many threatening as self-defensive uses of guns. Of the defensive encounters, many arose in confrontations that became hostile because of the presence of a firearm.

In the overall suicide rate, the United States ranks roughly in the middle of the pack among industrialized nations. However, we are the exception when it comes to suicides among children between the ages of 5 and 14, with an overall rate twice the average of other developed nations. This stark difference is driven almost exclusively by a firearm-related suicide rate that is 10 times the average of other industrialized nations.

Adolescents living in states with higher gun prevalence suffer from higher rates of suicide. Adolescents who commit suicide are significantly more likely to live with firearms in their homes even after adjusting for various risk factors. The increased risk holds true regardless of how the firearm is stored or the type of gun. Firearms that are stored loaded have the highest risk, while safely stored guns (locked and unloaded) are much safer. Proper firearm storage can’t mitigate the entire risk of adolescent gun suicide, but it is a necessary step.

In terms of accidental fatalities, American children younger than 15 are nine times more likely to die by a gun accident than those in the rest of the developed world. Children living in states with higher levels of firearm availability also suffer from significantly higher rates of unintentional gun deaths. Studies indicate the vast majority of these shootings involve either family or friends. These statistics indicate that parents’ ownership of a weapon is a significant risk not only to their own children but also to their children’s friends. As a report from the New York Times revealed, accidental killings are significantly underreported in the official data, often being classified as homicides or suicides rather than accidents. In several states there were twice as many accidental gun deaths than the official record indicated.

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