Sometimes Numbers Aren’t the Point: Children and Guns

Gun Child

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Research Institute, reports that one in three handguns in the United States is kept loaded and unlocked, and most children know where their parents keep their guns. [CHPRI]  Think about that for a second or two, then add the happy note that only about 1 in 3 households in the United States is “armed.” [NPR] In fact the number of households with a gun has dropped from 47% in 1973 to 31% in 2014. [NORC pdf] So, of the 1/3rd of the households that have guns in the U.S., 1/3rd of the hand guns are likely loaded and unlocked, and most of the youngsters know where those hand guns are located.  That’s a problem.  The first and most obvious problem is that guns kill quickly and efficiently – leading to fatal suicide attempts and homicides among the young.

Gun advocates often point to the fact that suicides are included in gun death reports, and opine that this is to “inflate the figures.”  No inflation is necessary.  Whether another person holds the gun or the victim holds the gun doesn’t alter the fact that the firearm was the proximate cause of death.  If we’re looking for ways to diminish the prospect of youth suicides and homicides then gun safety regulations are a point to consider.  Why?

“Homicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24, and 82% of the homicides are firearm related. As a nation, the United States has a higher firearm mortality rate among children and youth than the next highest 25 industrialized nations of the world combined.” [JHSPH pdf]

[…] one third of all firearms deaths among adolescents are the result of suicide. Between 1994 and 2006, teen suicide rates have dropped from 11.1 per 100,000 to 6.9 per 100,000. Although adolescent females are more likely to attempt suicide than males, males are four times more likely to die from suicide.  As a result, roughly 83% of suicide deaths were males.” [JHSPH pdf]

These figures support the findings of the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital reports

  • “In 2013, 1,670 children (age 0 to 18 years) died by gunshot and an additional 9,718 were injured.
  • Among children, the majority of unintentional shooting deaths occur in the home. Most of these deaths occur when children are playing with a loaded gun in their parent’s absence.
  • 73 percent of children under age 10 know where their parents keep their firearms and 36 percent admitted handling the weapons, contradicting their parents’ reports. 
  • More than 75 percent of guns used by youth in suicide attempts were kept in the home of the victim, a relative, or a friend.”

However, there are times the statistics aren’t enough.  We can calculate the medical expenses of a homicide victim. We can figure out approximately what the average funeral expenses will be for a suicide victim. We can collate statistics on gun ownership, gun access, and gun availability.  What we can’t calculate, collate, or figure out is the incalculable grief brought to any and all families as a result of firearm use and misuse.

What calculation is possible when a two year old child dies as a result of shooting himself with a hand gun he found in his mother’s purse? [Indianapolis April 20, 2016]  When a 26 year old mother dies because a child in the back seat of a car got hold of a gun? [Milwaukee April 27, 2016]  When a five year old girl kills herself with her father’s gun? [LaPlace, LA May 22, 2016]  In one week in April 2016, four toddlers shot and killed themselves. [NYT]

What method categorizes the grief when an 18 year old youngster with learning disabilities commits suicide, and a community has to deal with two youth suicides in the same month? [Livingston MT February 2016]  How does a school deal with an adolescent murder/suicide? [Glendale AZ, February 2016] There are lawsuits, but what are the lasting damages for a young girl bullied so viciously that she, too, commits suicide on December 11, 2014, in Fairfield, Ohio?  Reporters agonize over how to cover teen suicides, such as the one in Maine, July 2004.  Does one “minimize it” in order to avoid copy-cat results among other unstable teens; or, “report it” seeking to highlight the nature of the problems felt by adolescents and encourage more preventative measures?

What we cannot do is to remove the firearms from the discussion.  “Suicides are unstable, and this is a mental health problem?”  Yes, it’s a mental health problem – a mentally unhealthy youngster got a gun.  “It’s an inner city problem.”  Not really.   If by “inner city” the speaker is talking about African Americans, then the general numbers don’t support the isolation of the subject.  The numbers for U.S homicide murder victims by race for 2009 (2013 report) show White victims at 654 and Black victims at 639.  Under 22? White 1,381 and Black 1,813.  In fact, if we look at the numbers for victims under the age of 13, then White victims less than 1 year old – 106; Black victims 72; 1-4 years of age White 159, Black 129. And, 9-12 years old 43 White, 23 Black. It’s only in the 17-24 age range that there’s an observable disparity.  It’s too many young people who have too little judgment having access to too many guns:

“By age group, 69% of gun homicide victims are ages 18 to 40, a proportion that has changed little since 1993. These groups also have the highest homicide rates: In 2010, there were 10.7 gun homicides per 100,000 people ages 18 to 24, compared with 6.7 among those ages 25 to 40, the next highest rate.” [PewRes]

Good news and Bad news.  For good news we can look to numbers indicating a decline in gun ownership by household.  Fewer households with guns probably means fewer tragic family accidents, fewer youngsters with access to guns, and fewer opportunities for a younger person to take his or her own life.  We can also look to the decline in the overall homicide rates. Fewer people are doing fewer truly stupid things with guns.

On the counter side, only 11 states out of 50 have laws concerning firearm locking devices. Massachusetts is the only state that generally requires all firearms be stored with a lock in place. Only 5 states set standards for the design of locking devices.  This seems an unwarranted situation given that we know that about 1/3rd of accidental firearms deaths can be prevented by the use of a child proof lock and a device that indicates if a firearm is loaded. [SGL]

If we are truly concerned about our children and grandchildren, and we know that “73 percent of children under age 10 know where their parents keep their firearms and 36 percent admitted handling the weapons, contradicting their parents’ reports,” then requiring Safe Storage is a rational way to regulate the storage of firearms without impinging on a person’s right to ownership.

If we are truly concerned about our children and grandchildren, and we know that “More than 75 percent of guns used by youth in suicide attempts were kept in the home of the victim, a relative, or a friend,” then Safe Storage laws would be a sane way to restrict access to legally possessed firearms such that fewer young people might decide to take their lives in the wake of burgeoning personal problems.

If we are truly concerned about our children and grandchildren, then we’ll take a more rational perspective on the storage and access to firearms in the United States, so that the numbers will no longer matter all that much and we can concentrate on the quality of life we wish for those children.

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