The Tragedy of Fatal Hazards for Children

A single death due to an unintentional firearm discharge is one too many. When the victim is a child, the heartbreak can run especially deep.

But is the death of a child due to an unintentional firearm discharge any more or less tragic than the death of a child due to a car wreck or drowning? To think reasonably about the problem, we must put the dangers we face in context.

Earlier today the Denver Post falsely claimed that, based on recent figures, “more than 500 children in the United States die in gun accidents each year.” The actual figure for 2007, as the Post acknowledged in a correction, is 112 (as I reviewed at length earlier today). And yet, while I think journalists should strive to report the facts accurately, at a certain level the precise numbers are not the most important issue. What is most important is that each of these deaths, whatever their total number, represents a profound tragedy, a life forever snuffed out.

And yet life is full of risks. All sorts of things, not just firearms, can be hazardous if abused, both to adults and children. Obviously the proper goal is to reduce all deaths due to unintentional injury to as close to zero as feasible, everything else equal. The problem is that trying to force down the number of unintentional injuries can result in offsetting harms. For example, there is a very simple way to reduce the number of auto fatalities to zero: ban all automobiles. Yet obviously that would severely harm people in other ways. The same goes for firearms.

The fact is that firearms are useful for self-defense. Forcibly taking people’s guns away, or forcing people to render their guns inoperable for self-defense, would increase the numbers of home invasions, murders, and other crimes.

The Post rightly reports the general problem of gun fatalities in its related stories. In the case of the 2007 figures, the context for the statistics is a story about two 5-year-old children fatally shot in Colorado. In one case, a three-year-old shot a five-year-old with a “family friend’s gun.” In the other case, a child shot herself with her father’s gun. Those stories are painfully tragic to read about; obviously the families involved will never fully recover.

The Post includes some relevant context: in the first case the gun’s owner may be charged with “child abuse resulting in death and criminal negligence.” When the debate about gun laws raged in Colorado several years back, I rightly pointed out that general child-abuse laws already on the books account for all instances of needlessly putting a child in danger.

Notably, the Post has also pointed out the drowning statistics in stories related to drownings. For example, in 2009 the Post‘s Kieran Nicholsonwrote, “In 2005, there were 3,582 unintentional drownings in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” In another short story, the Post related, “The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated 319 children younger than 5 died in pool and spa incidents in 2005.”

Obviously the magnitude of the problem does matter. If ten-thousand children died every year in spas or by firearms, that would be an enormously more pressing problem. In the case of firearms, various anti-gun activists have skewed the figures for partisan political purposes. For obvious reasons, news reporters should be careful not to fall for such claims.

Even when reporters get their basic facts straight, readers ought to bear in mind the general context that, of necessity, is not included in a particular news story.

According to, “Fatal gun accidents involving children (aged 0-14) also fell significantly, from 495 in 1975, to under 250 in 1995.” Again, the figure for all minors for 2007 was 112. The fact that unintentional shootings have fallen dramatically, even as gun ownership has risen, is a very good thing.

Using the CDC’s clever search function, we can compare deaths from different sources. For 2007, a total of 7,931 children age zero to seventeen died of unintentional injury. So the deaths involving firearms represents 1.4 percent of the total. When parents are evaluating risks, that’s a relevant figure.

Let’s check out the numbers of unintentional deaths by various other causes (same year and age group):

Firearms: 112
Drowning: 901
Fall: 123
Fire/Burn: 497
Poisoning: 398
Suffocation: 1,239
Transportation Related, Overall: 4,264

Again, the point is not that news reporters are obligated to provide such context when writing their reports; they are not. But readers should bear in mind that news reports generally do not include all the relevant context.

Parents should take reasonable precautions to prevent unintentional injuries, whatever their cause. Part of this means that gun owners should take precautions not to let any unauthorized or irresponsible person gain access to a firearm. As a group, U.S. gun owners have made great strides in curbing the numbers of unintentional gun deaths. Obviously, some small fraction of gun owners need to do better.