Children and guns: Only half of accidental shootings reported
Published: September 28, 2013 07:20PM
Updated: September 28, 2013 05:06PM
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Tribune file photo In this photo from the 2006 games, a used bullet casing flies out of the chamber as Loyd Crume, aka "Line Century," of Grands Pass, Ore., reloads his rifle during the Cowboy Action Shooting event.

The Springfield Armory .45-caliber pistol that killed Lucas Heagren, 3, on Memorial Day last year at his Ohio home had been temporarily hidden under the couch by his father. But Lucas found it and shot himself through the right eye. “It’s bad,” his mother told the 911 dispatcher. “It’s really bad.”

A few days later in Georgia, Cassie Culpepper, 11, was riding in the back of a pickup with her 12-year-old brother and two other children. Her brother started playing with a pistol his father had lent him to scare coyotes. Believing he had removed all the bullets, he pointed the pistol at his sister and squeezed the trigger. It fired, and blood poured from Cassie’s mouth.

Just a few weeks earlier, in Houston, a group of youths found a Glock pistol in an apartment closet while searching for snack money. A 15-year-old boy was handling the gun when it went off. Alex Whitfield, who had just turned 11, was struck. A relative found the bullet in his ashes from the funeral home.

Cases like these are among the most gut-wrenching of gun deaths. Children shot accidentally - usually by other children - are collateral casualties of the accessibility of guns in America, their deaths all the more devastating for being eminently preventable.

They die in the households of police officers and drug dealers, in broken homes and close-knit families, on rural farms and in city apartments. Some adults whose guns were used had tried to store them safely; others were grossly negligent. Still others pulled the trigger themselves, accidentally fracturing their own families while cleaning a pistol or hunting.

And there are far more of these innocent victims than official records show.

A New York Times review of hundreds of child firearm deaths found that accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by the authorities. The killings of Lucas, Cassie and Alex, for instance, were not recorded as accidents. Nor were more than half of the 259 accidental firearm deaths of children younger than 15 identified by The Times in eight states where records were available.

As a result, scores of accidental killings are not reflected in the official statistics that have framed the debate over how to protect children from guns. The National Rifle Association cited the lower official numbers this year in a fact sheet opposing “safe storage” laws, saying children were more likely to be killed by falls, poisoning or environmental factors - an incorrect assertion if the actual number of accidental firearm deaths is significantly higher.

In all, fewer than 20 states have enacted laws to hold adults criminally liable if they fail to store guns safely, enabling children to access them. Legislative and other efforts to promote the development of childproof weapons using “smart gun” technology have similarly stalled. Technical issues have been an obstacle, but so have NRA arguments that the problem is relatively insignificant and the technology unneeded.

Even with a proper count, intentional shooting deaths of children - including gang shootings and murder-suicides by family members - far exceed accidental gun deaths. But accidents, more than the other firearm-related deaths, come with endless hypotheticals about what could have been done differently.

The rifle association’s lobbying arm recently posted on its website a claim that adult criminals who mishandle firearms - as opposed to law-abiding gun owners - are responsible for most fatal accidents involving children. But The Times’ review found that a vast majority of cases revolved around children’s access to firearms, with the shooting either self-inflicted or done by another child.

A common theme in the cases examined by The Times, in fact, was the almost magnetic attraction of firearms among boys. In all but a handful of instances, the shooter was male. Boys also accounted for more than 80 percent of the victims. Time and again, boys could not resist handling a gun, disregarding repeated warnings by adults and, sometimes, their own sense that they were doing something wrong.

Compiling a complete census of accidental gun deaths of children is difficult, because most states do not consider death certificate data a matter of public record. In a handful of states, however, the information is publicly available. Using these death records as a guide, along with hundreds of medical examiner and coroner reports and police investigative files, The Times sought to identify every accidental firearm death of a child age 14 and younger in Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio dating to 1999, and in California to 2007. Records were also obtained from several county medical examiners’ offices in Florida, Illinois and Texas.

The goal, in the end, was an in-depth portrait of accidental firearm deaths of children, one that would shed light on how such killings occur and might be prevented. In all, The Times cataloged 259 gun accidents that killed children ages 14 and younger. The youngest was just 9 months old, shot in his crib.

In four of the five states - California, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio - The Times identified roughly twice as many accidental killings as were tallied in the corresponding federal data. In the fifth, Minnesota, there were 50 percent more accidental gun deaths. (The Times excluded some fatal shootings, like pellet gun accidents, that are normally included in the federal statistics.)

The undercount stems from the peculiarities by which medical examiners and coroners make their “manner of death” rulings. These pronouncements, along with other information entered on death certificates, are the basis for the nation’s mortality statistics, which are assembled by the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Choosing among five options - homicide, accidental, suicide, natural or undetermined - most medical examiners and coroners simply call any death in which one person shoots another a homicide.

“A homicide just means they died at the hands of another,” said Dr. Randy L. Hanzlick, the medical examiner for Fulton County, Ga. “It doesn’t really connote there’s an intent to kill.”

These rulings can be wildly inconsistent.

In Bexar County, Texas, for example, the medical examiner’s office issued a finding of homicide in the death of William Reddick, a 9-month-old who was accidentally killed on May 17, 1999, when his 2-year-old brother opened a dresser drawer while in the crib with him, grabbed a pistol and pulled the trigger.

But the next year, when Kyle Bedford, 2, was killed by his 5-year-old brother, who had found a gun on a closet shelf, the same office classified the death as an accident.

A few public health researchers have noted the undercount in the past, based on their own academic studies. (One study found the opposite phenomenon - an overcount - among fatal gun accidents involving adults because of a different quirk in the data.) To get more accurate information about firearm deaths, researchers have pushed for the expansion of the National Violent Death Reporting System.

The system first started in the 1990s at the CDC but was shut down shortly afterward when Congress, at the urging of the NRA, blocked firearms-related research at the centers. The project was revived in 2002 after researchers decided to expand its scope beyond guns, but it is up and running in only 18 states. President Barack Obama has called for increased financing for the program, part of a package of gun-related proposals made after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December.

Another important aspect of firearm accidents is that a vast majority of victims do not die. Tracking these injuries nationally, however, is arguably just as problematic as tallying fatalities, according to public health researchers. In fact, national figures often cited from the CDC’s website are an estimate, projected from a sampling taken from hospital emergency departments. Nevertheless, in 2011, the most recent year with available data, the agency estimated that there were 847 unintentional nonfatal firearm injuries among children 14 and younger.

While about 60 percent of the accidental firearm deaths identified by The Times involved handguns as opposed to long guns, that number was much higher - more than 85 percent - when the victims were very young, younger than 6. In fact, the average handgun victim was several years younger than long gun victims: between 7 and 8, compared with almost 11.

Overall, the largest number of deaths came at the upper end of the age range, with ages 13 and 14 being most common - not necessarily surprising, given that parents generally allow adolescents greater access to guns. But the third-most common age was 3 (tied with 12), a particularly vulnerable age, when children are curious and old enough to manipulate a firearm but ignorant of the dangers.

About a quarter of the victims shot themselves, with younger children again especially susceptible. More than half of the self-inflicted shootings involved children 5 or younger; the most common age was 3.

About half of the accidents took place inside the child’s home. A third, however, occurred at the house of a friend or a relative, pointing to a potential vulnerability if safe-storage laws apply only to households with children.

The impact of the undercount of accidental gun deaths emerges in stark relief in the statehouse battles over gun-storage laws.

In state after state and often with considerable success, gun rights groups have cited the federal numbers as proof that the problem is nearly inconsequential and that storage laws are unnecessary. Gun Owners of America says on its website that children are “130 percent more likely to die from choking on their dinner” than from accidental shootings.

Under the CDC figures, in fact, gun accidents were the ninth-leading cause of unintentional deaths among children ages 1 to 14 in 2010. (The agency reported 62 such killings that year.) If the actual numbers are, in fact, roughly double, however, gun accidents would rise into the top five or six.

Gun rights groups have certainly called on gun owners to safely store their firearms. The National Shooting Sports Foundation says it has distributed 36 million free firearm safety kits and that manufacturers have shipped 60 million locks with guns sold since 1998. But the groups argue that requiring gun owners to lock up their weapons could make it harder to use them for self-protection.

Gun rights lobbyists have also helped keep firearms and ammunition beyond the reach of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has the power to regulate other products that are dangerous to children. The NRA argues that the commission would provide a back door for gun control advocates to restrict the manufacture of firearms. Proponents of regulation say guns pose too great a hazard to exclude them from scrutiny.

“We know in the world of injury control that designing safer products is often the most efficient way to reduce tragedies,” said Kellermann, the co-author of the boys-and-guns study, who is a dean at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. “Why, if we have childproof aspirin bottles, don’t we have childproof guns?”