Guns, Children and Accidents: Four Blunt Points

A young boy plays with a toy gun at the ACM Experience in the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino on March 30, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph by Jerod Harris via Getty Images

An extensive front-page report on the death of children linked to gun accidents, the latest installment in the New York Times series on “the gun industry’s influence and the wide availability of firearms in America,” contains laudable reporting. Unfortunately, it also betrays a perplexing aversion to fundamental statistics that undercut its thesis. As a result, I fear the article will do more to fuel the culture war over firearms than it will to spur rational debate and reform.

Let’s break it down:

1. The Times identifies a troubling fact about child gun deaths. Based on dogged compilation of death certificates in five states, the paper convincingly suggests that a substantial percentage of accidental gun fatalities involving kids are categorized by medical examiners as homicides. This finding implies, in the words of the Times subhead: “Accidental shooting deaths are widely undercounted.” Citing its finding, the Times advocates enactment of laws requiring gun owners to store weapons safely, an entirely reasonable aim.

Shockingly, only 18 states have such statutes, according to the story. In the name
of Second Amendment absolutism, the National Rifle Association lobbies against mandatory storage laws.

2. Wait, what about the flip side of the accident undercount? Strangely, the Times seems uninterested that if we’re underestimating gun accidents, we’re exaggerating the number of child homicides. The newspaper offers no indication that medical examiners are nefariously covering up accidents. Why does it matter, then, whether we call them “accidents” or negligent “homicides”? Whatever the label, such horrible incidents offer a justification for locking up guns in any household where there are children.

3. And, by the way, what’s the overall trend in child gun deaths, accidental or otherwise? That’s a question I had early on as a reader of the nearly 6,000-word article. (Actually, I knew the answer and wondered when the Times would get around to revealing it.)

Only in the 75th paragraph of a 110-paragraph article does the newspaper acknowledge in an offhand way “the deep decline in accidental gun deaths shown in federal statistics dating to the mid-1980s.” Huh? So, even if some accidents are categorized incorrectly as homicides, something good seems to be happening.

The Times didn’t offer any specifics. Why not? They’re not difficult to find. The Centers for Disease Control website provides one statistical snapshot (PDF): From 1999
through 2010, child gun deaths attributed to accident, homicide, and suicide all declined (although the absolute levels are still alarmingly high). What’s more, the reduction in minors killing each other and themselves mirrors a broader and deeper decrease (PDF) in all firearm crime in the U.S. since 1993. I didn’t notice a reference in the Times to this heartening overall violent-crime trend.

4. The culture war should not obscure an important, empirically driven discussion about guns in America. Firearms have become potent ideological symbols in a politically polarized society. Debate about guns provokes a tendency to demonize opponents and distort evidence. It happens on both sides.

Steps we could take to separate curious children from guns is a topic well worth examining. As noted, I agree with the Times’s support for safe-storage laws. I disagree, however, with its picking and choosing among relevant evidence to get there. Why does that matter? One reason is that it opens the door for opponents of safe-storage laws and other forms of firearm regulation to accuse proponents like the Times of harboring a fundamental, culturally oriented hostility to gun ownership.

The Times did not help matters by illustrating its article with a large photo of a grieving mother accompanied by a prominently displayed quote: “There are no accidents. There are simply irresponsible, stubborn, cowardly adults unwilling to stand up against the gun lobby and those who support it.” In my view, this woman’s pain gives her a pass to say pretty much whatever she wants. Making her anger a central message of such a sizable journalistic undertaking, though, raises questions about whether gun-control backers are just as prone to invective and conspiracy talk as their least responsible foes. Dispassionate analysis would serve everyone better.

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