An estimated one-third of American children live in homes with firearms, according to public health research, and 43 percent of these homes have at least one unlocked firearm lying about as an invitation to accidental mayhem.
The inevitable results are appalling. Federal data says that between 2007 and 2011 a yearly average of 62 children, age 14 and under, were killed every year while playing with a family gun left loaded and unsecured, and 660 were injured badly enough to require hospitalization.
But the actual toll could be even greater — with 100 youngsters or more shot to death each year in grossly careless family settings — according to a detailed new studyof child deaths by firearm conducted by Everytown for Gun Safety, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gun research and lobbying organization.
The report tracked fatalities in 35 states since the shooting massacre in 2012 when 20 children were massacred at school in Newtown, Conn. Individual shooting deaths have gone far less noticed, for all the public concern for children and guns that was prompted by Newtown.
The lethal — yet still politically accepted — reality remains that a child is 16 times more likely to die by accidental shooting in this country than in other high-income nations, the study found. Toddlers were more likely to shoot themselves, while older children were more likely to be shot by someone else. Most of the shootings — 84 percent — occurred at home or in the family car.
The group concluded that the death of children by gunfire is being significantly undercounted because of misreporting in official records. “Each is a tragedy,” the study notes, “Together, they are an epidemic.”
The potential for more carnage is stark: 1.7 million American children live in homes where guns are left unsecured and loaded. And an estimated 70 percent of children under age 10 know where parents think they’ve safely hidden guns, and they can find ammunition nearby, too, according to a Harvard survey.
Some of the worst shootings involve children who take their parents’ unlocked guns to school. In a separate analysis of 20 school shootings by minors, in the cases where the source of the gun was known, three-quarters of the shooters obtained their guns from home.
One obvious way to deal with the problem is to be less forgiving of adults and apply stronger criminal penalties when loaded weapons are callously left unsecured. About half the states have such laws, but they vary widely and the issue demands far stronger safety campaigns to stir public awareness.
Gun safety groups have made sensible proposals to have the Consumer Product Safety Commission promote trigger locks and other safeguards, and for fuller federal research into this public health problem. But that would require Congress, which has been notoriously obedient to the gun lobby, to take responsibility for children’s safety. Sadly, that seems unlikely. Worse, the gun lobby’s main state legislative campaign in this area is to gag physicians so they cannot even inquire into a family’s gun safety at home.