Yesterday comes the news out of Michigan that a 12-year old, mentally-impaired boy, who took a shotgun out of his grandfather’s gun safe, pulled the trigger and killed a pregnant, 28-year old woman sleeping in a different room in the same house, will now be charged with careless discharge of a firearm. The sentence could involve fines and/or placement in a juvenile facility. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Michigan is one of 23 states that does not have a child access prevention law (CAP), which means that a kid who had no idea what he was doing gets charged in this death and grandpa, who owned the gun, gets off scot free.
Every week or so the media seems to carry another story about a youngster who somehow manages to grab a gun and kill or wound someone else. Probably the recent episode that garnered the most media attention was the shooting of Veronica Rutledge by her 2-year old son in an Idaho Wal Mart; Mom had a pistol in her handbag, turned away for a sec and – bam! Rutledge was alleged to be a trained shooter who carried a gun for self-defense. Some self-defense.
In 2013, the CDC estimates that 538 kids under 14 were unintentionally injured by guns and another 69 are estimated to have lost their lives because someone accidentally shot off a gun. THE CDC also reports that 625 kids 14 years or younger died from drowning and 1,345 youngsters lost their lives in accidents involving trucks or cars. I’m not saying the deaths of 69 children for any reason should be ignored; I’m just trying to put it into perspective as regards the issue of safe guns.
Even though we don’t have exact data on how many children kill or maim themselves or others with guns, every time it happens we get the chorus about locking up or locking away the guns. The issue of gun safety needs to be understood beyond the degree to which young children are injured or killed because when we look at total unintentional firearm mortality and morbidity for all ages, the numbers dramatically change. Accidental gun deaths jump to 505; for non-fatal gun injuries the toll is 16,864. This latter figure, to quote one of my street friends, is serious sh*t. And it would be a lot more serious were it not for skilled trauma surgeons who somehow manage to bring many shooting victims back from the dead.
The problem with relying on CAP laws and safe storage is that most unintentional shootings occur not because a little kid grabs a gun, but because the owner or one of his friends does something impulsive or dumb while the gun is being used in a lawful and legal way. In 2013, there were 2,590 unintentional gun injury victims ages 15 to 19, but nearly 2,000 of these victims were 18 years old, which meant that they were lawfully able to use a gun. The gun accident rate for the 18-19 age group was 22.74, drops to 9.38 for ages 20-35, to 7.82 for ages 35-44 and down to 3.16 for ages 45-54. This decrease in gun accident rates moving up the age scale is exactly what we find in rates by age bracket for accidents involving cars.
Everyone is in favor of using guns safely; the NRA talks about it all the time. What nobody wants to face, however, is the simple fact that when you have 300 million dangerous weapons floating around, a certain number are going to be used every day in stupid and senseless ways. If CAP laws and safe storage prevented every unintentional gun injury to children, the overall deaths and injuries would drop by 3 percent. CAP laws and gun locks are necessary, but they don’t really respond to the fact that 300 million extremely lethal weapons are owned by humans, and at some time or another every one of us will be careless or forget.