Far more children are hurt each year in falls or motor vehicle collisions than from gunfire. So why, you might ask, do I spend so much time writing about unintentional child shootings? One reason is that these shootings are all the more tragic because they should be preventable. Another is that child gun-related injuries, while relatively uncommon, are far more severe than other types of injuries.
A new study in Pediatrics offers support for this notion. The authors examined emergency records for children 19 and under between 2006 and 2008, cataloging the six most common types of childhood injuries, and the frequency, severity, and cost of each. While gunshot injuries were, as I said, relatively uncommon (505 out of almost 50,000 total injuries), they were “more severe, requiring more frequent major therapeutic interventions and resulting in higher mortality and per-patient costs than any other injury mechanism. Although gunshot injuries accounted for only 1 percent of injured children, they were associated with more than 20 percent of deaths after injury.” In other words, a child who is shot is far more likely to die or suffer serious consequences than one who hurts himself some other way.
The study helps explain why, when we’re ranking tragedies, sheer statistical frequency isn’t always the most important input. There are far more Rollerblading accidents than plane crashes every year. And yet plane crashes are rightly seen as a more pressing public concern, in part because they are so much more likely to have fatal consequences. So it is with gunshots. We focus on these not because they happen every day, but because when they do happen, they are more likely to be deadly.
And we focus on them because, unlike random falls, child shootings can be reduced through policy mechanisms. There’s no law that can stop someone from tripping over their own shoelaces. But intelligent laws, actively enforced, can do a lot to keep guns out of the hands of children. The Pediatrics study makes a similar point when it notes that “gains in motor vehicle safety required rigorous research to understand the problems, partnerships with national organizations (e.g., National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the automotive industry, and evidence-based legislation. Reducing gunshot injuries in children will likely require similarly broad-based, interdisciplinary efforts, in addition to rigorous research.”
The NRA and other advocacy organizations like to cite the low incidence of child gun injuries in order to argue that there’s no need for rigorous research and legislation. Studies like the one in Pediatrics go a long way toward rebutting those tepid arguments.
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