Last year at least 278 children unintentionally fired a gun and injured or killed someone. Kids such as the 5-year-old in Missouri who was playing with his grandfather's handgun when he fired it, killing his infant brother. Or the 3-year-old Ohio boy who found his mother's handgun in her purse and discharged it into his own chest. Or the 4-year-old son of an Alaskan state trooper, who found his dad's personal weapon and was looking down the barrel when it went off.
In isolation these tragedies seem like random accidents, but together they form a pattern — one we can interrupt if we track the data and test the most promising solutions.
We need a more complete picture of this phenomenon than we have today. It is well established that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the authority on fatal injuries nationwide, undercounts the number of children killed in unintentional shootings by nearly 50%, likely because of misclassifications by medical examiners. To fill this gap, the organization where I direct research, Everytown for Gun Safety, began tracking news reports in which a child 17 or younger unintentionally fired a gun and harmed someone. In 2015, we found 278 incidents resulting in at least 88 deaths and 194 injuries — though there may well have been more.
Even in our imperfect data, the patterns we see play out are striking. Three-year-olds pull the trigger more than kids of any other age. Nearly two-thirds of the shootings occurred where the child was almost certainly believed to be safe — in their own home or that of a relative. The frequency of these shootings varies between states by several orders of magnitude: controlling for population, the highest rate was in Alaska, 30 times the rate in California.
Our analysis also reveals how we might prevent some of these tragedies.
The common denominator in most incidents was irresponsible gun storage: Adults who do not secure their guns put children at disproportionate risk. According to surveys, fewer than 15% of gun-owning households with children store their firearms unlocked and loaded or with ammunition — but such households accounted for nearly two-thirds of the unintentional child shootings we tracked.
Treating unintentional child shootings as crimes rather than blameless accidents or twists of fate is one way of incentivizing more responsible gun storage. Of unintentional child shootings in 2015 that could have been prevented by safe storage, prosecutors brought negligence charges against only a quarter of known gun-owners. That needs to happen more consistently.
Nearly 30 states have adopted “child access prevention laws,” which vary in character but generally hold the owner criminally liable if a gun winds up in a child's hands. Research suggests these statutes have an effect.
In Florida, which passed a strong law and rolled it out with a major public education campaign, the rate of unintentional child shooting deaths fell 51% over the next decade. Such laws are also associated with reduced rates of suicide among 14- to 17-year-olds.
Peer-to-peer educational programs also the have potential to shift social norms on responsible firearms storage. Organizations across the political spectrum have run public education campaigns dedicated to safe storage, including Moms Demand Action's Be SMART curriculum, the Brady Center's Ask campaign, and the firearm trade industry's Project ChildSafe.
But to measure the effectiveness of any individual law or campaign, it is critical to know how gun storage behavior has changed over time state by state. And here again, the CDC data are incomplete. After an onslaught of criticism by the gun lobby's allies in Congress, in 2004 the CDC stripped questions about gun ownership and storage practices from its national survey. Although the survey's state coordinators could reintroduce those questions nationwide, they have failed to do so.
Unintentional child shootings account for just a fraction of the nation's tens of thousands of annual gun injuries and fatalities, but few shootings cry out as loudly for prevention. With better data, evidence-based laws and informed campaigns to shift public behavior, we can keep even the most curious kids from accessing guns while unsupervised. And that will save lives.
Ted Alcorn is the research director for Everytown for Gun Safety.