There Are Way More Unintentional Child Shootings Than Anyone Thought

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Sept. 30 2013 2:12 PM

There Are Way More Unintentional Child Shootings Than Anyone Thought

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A file photo of a handgun.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

How many kids die in America each year from so-called accidental shootings? According to official records, not very many. Federal mortality statistics, which track deaths of all sorts, indicate that children are more likely to die in falls or by drowning than from an accidentally discharged firearm—a statistic that pro-gun groups have cited when arguing against “safe storage” laws or other measures that could make it harder for children to access guns. But a fantastic New York Times investigation convincingly argues that those statistics are wrong, and that far more children die in unintentional shootings than we think.

The Times’ Michael Luo and Mike McIntire looked at child gun deaths in eight states going as far back as 1999 and identified 259 as unintentional shootings. More than half of those had not been counted in the federal statistics. Why the discrepancy? Luo and McIntire found that unintentional child shooting deaths are routinely labeled by medical examiners as homicides, regardless of the shooter’s intent. “A homicide just means they died at the hands of another,” Atlanta medical examiner Dr. Randy L. Hanzlick told the Times. “It doesn’t really connote there’s an intent to kill.” (Worth noting, even though it’s completely off topic: Dr. Hanzlick also wrote one of our most enduring novelty songs, “I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me (Than a Frontal Lobotomy).”)

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Another medical examiner had a different rationale for classifying these deaths as homicides:

“Our thought process was, parents have a duty to keep their child safe,” said Dr. Lisa Kohler, the Summit County medical examiner, whose office classified the case as a homicide. “Leaving a loaded weapon in an area where the child can easily access it is neglect in our mind. Therefore parents have failed to keep a child safe, and therefore it’s a homicide.”

While I tend to agree with Dr. Kohler’s point, I don’t think a death report is the best place to press it. It’s important to have an accurate record of unintentional child shooting deaths. I’ve been writing about these sorts of incidents for months now, and I’ve come to believe they would be much less common if states would pass and enforce safe-storage laws and other child-access-prevention statutes that incentivize parents to keep guns away from their kids and provide punishments for failing to do so. (According to the Times, only 18 states currently have safe-storage laws on the books.) Undercounting these incidents makes it easy for gun advocates to claim that stricter laws are unnecessary impositions on gun owners’ freedoms—that they address a problem that doesn’t actually exist. It’s going to take solid reporting like this Times story for legislators to realize that the problem not only exists, but is worse than it seems. The time to address it is now.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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