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As more families own handguns, more young children die from gun-related injuries, study finds

REUTERS/Joshua Lott
Firearm-related injuries are the third leading cause of injury-related deaths among U.S. children aged 0 to 17, claiming about 1,300 children’s lives each year.

More American families are bringing handguns into their homes, a trend that appears to be having deadly consequences for young children, according to a study published this week in the journal Pediatrics.

The study found that as handgun ownership has increased in the United States, so has the gun-related death rate among children under the age of 6.

“This study is a loud and compelling call to action for all pediatricians to start open discussions around firearm ownership with all families and share data on the significant risks associated with unsafe storage,” write the physician-authors of an invited commentary that accompanies the study.

“It is an even louder call to firearm manufacturers to step up and innovate, test and design smart handguns, inoperable by young children, to prevent unintentional injury,” the doctors add.

A troubling trend

Firearm-related injuries are the third leading cause of injury-related deaths among U.S. children aged 0 to 17, claiming about 1,300 children’s lives each year.

The rate at which children are dying from gun injuries is lower today than in past decades, primarily because of reductions in overall firearm ownership. But a troubling trend has emerged during the past decade: The firearm-related death rate has stagnated among children aged 12 and younger.

That trend is largely driven by an almost doubling of the firearm-related death rate among very young children aged 1 to 4. Between 2006 and 2016, the rate jumped from 0.36 to 0.63 deaths per 100,000 children.

Gun injuries were the fifth most common cause of injury-related deaths in this age group in 2016, with 101 deaths in all. (Drowning, with 425 deaths, was the leading cause.)

The authors of the current study wanted to see if changes in the types of guns that families keep in their home — specifically, a switch to smaller firearms, such as handguns — could explain why the death rate among very young children has not kept pace with the general decline in gun ownership.

As they point out, handguns are easier for young children to hold, and toddlers as young as 2 years old have enough hand strength to operate them. Furthermore, because handguns are usually bought for personal protection, they are more likely to be stored loaded with ammunition and in an easily accessible location, such as a bedroom drawer.

Most gun deaths in very young children are unintentional. The child comes upon the gun in the home, thinks it’s a toy and pulls the trigger.

Study details

For the study, a research team led by Kate Pricket, a family sociologist at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, analyzed U.S. data on gun ownership and child mortality for the years 1976 through 2016.

They looked specifically at gun ownership among U.S. families with children aged 1 to 5. And because of data limitations, they focused on white families.

Their analysis found that the proportion of white families with young children who owned firearms declined from 50 percent in 1976 to 45 percent in 2016. But the proportion that owned handguns increased, from 25 percent to 32 percent.

That meant that 72 percent of firearm-owning families with young children had a handgun in 2016.

The researchers then looked to see if that rise in handgun ownership was associated with the increase in firearm-related deaths among young children.

They found that for each 1 percent increase in the proportion of white families with young children who owned any kind of firearm, there was an almost a half percent rise in the firearm-related death rate among 1- to 5-year olds.

They also found that this association was “primarily driven by changes in the proportion of families who owned handguns.”

An ‘extremely dangerous’ combination

This study was observational, so it can’t prove definitively that the increase in handgun ownership among families with small children is behind the rise in gun-related deaths in that age group.

Still, as the doctors who wrote the accompanying commentary point out, mixing “the small curious hands of a young child” with “the easily accessible and operable, loaded handgun” is an “extremely dangerous” combination.

Both the commentary’s authors and the study’s authors stress that all gun owners with children should make sure their guns are stored unloaded and under lock and key — even if they have given their children strict instructions not to touch the gun. Furthermore, all ammunition should be stored — and locked up — in a separate location.

Those same safety precautions need to be taken by grandparents and others who have children in their home from time to time. As other research has shown, about a third of all unintentional shootings of children occur in the homes of their friends, neighbors or relatives.

Unfortunately, more than half of U.S. households with firearms do not store their guns safely. All too often, that lack of precaution ends in tragedy.

FMI: You’ll find the study and the commentary on Pediatrics’ website.  For advice on how to keep your children safe from unintentional gun injuries — including from guns in other people’s homes — go to the American Academy of Pediatricians’ website.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/31/2019 - 09:46 am.

    Firearms education is severely lacking. Contrary to popular belief the NRA is heavily involved in firearm education.

    Last week a police officer in St. Louis was killed when her partner “mishandled” his firearm. Maybe they could benefit from firearm safety training as well.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/31/2019 - 03:21 pm.

      I’m not sure what you mean by contrary to popular belief, I thought everyone knew the NRA was into gun education, I took an NRA gun safely class in the early sixties. Back before the reign of Wayne LaPierre when it was still about hunting. Now their “education” is about gun sales.

      I’m glad you pointed out that even the trained professionals accidental discharge their weapons. How can we think that just being a ‘responsible” gun owner is enough to avoid accidents when even he police can’t avoid them.

      • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/31/2019 - 04:28 pm.

        Whoever said that police officers were responsible gun owners? Have you ever watched some of them shoot at any of the ranges around the Twin Cities metro area?

        You refer to yourself as a “super owner” yet you state a loaded gun is dangerous. Don’t you ever fire yours?

        • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/31/2019 - 05:21 pm.

          I hope you don’t call yourself a responsible gun owner apparently thinking a loaded gun ISN’T dangerous. Why do you suppose there are all the rules at the gun range? Because loaded guns are dangerous. I don’t care who you are.

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/31/2019 - 10:40 am.

    You can’t regulate private behavior. Will you be locking up all swimming pools, bathtubs, etc so kids don’t drown anymore? The missing data is that gun ownership has skyrocketed in recent years yet gun deaths haven’t risen to match, not even close.

    People need to be more responsible in the own actions.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/31/2019 - 01:58 pm.

      The number of households owning guns hasn’t changed much since the 70’s it has not “skyrocketed.” its was 43% in 1973 and 43% 2018, but the number of guns has skyrocketed. Mostly due to super owners, like myself, who own several guns. Here’s a stat on super ownership: Just 3 percent of Americans own nearly half of the nation’s guns. Averaging 17 guns each.

      As this article points out more people are owning handguns. Which are inherently more dangerous to children than long guns.

      Mine are all locked in a safe, ALL of them, having been around guns all my 62 years I know how dangerous a loaded gun is and won’t have them in my house.

      Personal responsibility is a lovely thought, but when you have a entire political party devoted to pushing EVERYONE to not only own a gun, but load it and carry where ever you go then you are inevitably going to get irresponsible owners. When this is pointed out and politicians try impose reasonable restrictions the party of gun ownership goes nuts. So nuts in fact that they have blocked legislation that would have barred people on the Terrorist watch list from owning guns. Imagine that, a person suspected of being a terrorist is being protected by politicians in the Republican party. Its nuts.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/31/2019 - 03:48 pm.

        You are using a flawed stat. Households have changed drastically as we have many more of them due to divorce and single parents. So going by households isn’t a good measure. Total gun sales and guns per capita would be better data.

        No party is actually pushing to have everyone armed (I wish one would because that would be a drastic reduction in crime). When you look at how many guns are in America, our gun death stats are extremely low. You will never get down to 0 deaths. People will do stupid things and no amount of laws will change that.

        As for the terror watch List, how do we know any of this people are terrorists? If they haven’t committed a crime then they have the right to own guns. If they have committed crimes or are actual terrorists then they should be in prison already. These lists need to go away (terror, no fly etc). Either arrest the people or leave them alone.

        • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/31/2019 - 05:26 pm.

          I don’t think you understand statistics. Sales, one guy buys 350 million guns. Total gun sales would be huge, but only one guy would have all those guns and drive up the per capita gun ownership by one gun per US Citizen. But that one guy still owns all those guns.

  3. Submitted by Alan Straka on 01/31/2019 - 01:04 pm.

    The gun industry is not going to produce “smart” guns. New Jersey pretty much made it impossible for that to happen. They have a law that once the technology is available to the retail customer, all handguns sold must be “smart” guns. What manufacturer is going to make every other handgun they produce illegal? Sure it is only New Jersey but it isn’t likely to remain restricted to New Jersey. They will also face a tremendous backlash from the gun owning public. One Maryland dealer, Andy Raymond, owner of Engage Armament, tried to offer a “smart” handgun, it did not go well. The odd thing about the New Jersey law is that the Democratic legislature tried to repeal the law but Republican Chris Christie vetoed the repeal.

  4. Submitted by Paul Yochim on 01/31/2019 - 03:11 pm.

    No matter how “smart” a manufacturer makes a gun there will always be someone stupid enough to injure themselves or others with it. Government enacting laws to protect people from themselves is the beginning of tyranny.

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/31/2019 - 05:08 pm.

    It’s time to include firearm safety classes in public schools. The NRA has an excellent, proven program ready to go. They will provide very skilled instructors, who are used to teaching kids everything they need to know to be safe.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/02/2019 - 09:36 am.

      “They will provide very skilled instructors, who are used to teaching kids everything they need to know to be safe”
      Do you really believe this is a rationale statement? Apparently there is not a belief in the laws of statistics and probability, Agree with HT above, the NRA in the 60s was about shooting straight and safe not about increasing crooked information and gun sales.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 02/02/2019 - 06:45 pm.

        I believe a lot of tragically uninformed people are making ignorant statements.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/04/2019 - 10:09 am.

          Assuming the comment is directed and not self-reflective, Please educate? As an example, how would the NRA silver bullet training have kept the 20 murdered kids at Sandy Hook “everything they need to know to be safe”.

          • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 02/04/2019 - 10:52 am.

            The topic is kids harming themselves with firearms. They are much less likely to play around with a gun when they are fully informed of their capabilities and safe handling.

            Securing public “gun free” venues (such as schools) from attack is another subject, with other solutions.

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