In Gun-crazed America, Armed Toddlers Proving Deadlier than Terrorists
May 3, 2016
Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post
Since April 20, 2016, there have been at least seven instances in which a 1-, 2-, or 3-year-old shot themselves or somebody else in the United States. In 2015, toddlers were finding guns and shooting people at a rate of about one a week. In 2015, at least 265 people were accidentally shot by kids and, in the past five years, at least six Americans have been shot by dogs. Guns are now killing as many people as cars.
Toddlers Have Shot at Least 23 People this Year
Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post
(May 1, 2016) -- This past week, a Milwaukee toddler fatally shot his mother after finding a handgun in the back seat of the car they were riding in. The case drew a lot of national attention given the unusual circumstances: Little kids rarely kill people, intentionally or not.
But this type of thing happens more often than you might think. Since April 20, there have been at least seven instances in which a 1- , 2- or 3-year-old shot themselves or somebody else in the United States:
* On April 20, a 2-year-old boy in Indiana found the gun his mother left in her purse on the kitchen counter and fatally shot himself.
* The next day in Kansas City, Mo., a 1-year-old girl evidently shot and killed herself with her father's gun while he was sleeping.
* On April 22, a 3-year-old in Natchitoches, La., fatally shot himself after getting hold of a gun.
* On April 26, a 3-year-old boy in Dallas, Ga., fatally shot himself in the chest with a gun he found at home.
* On April 27, the Milwaukee toddler fatally shot his mother in the car.
* That same day, a 3-year-old boy in Grout Township, Mich., shot himself in the arm with a gun he found at home. He is expected to survive.
* On April 29, a 3-year-old girl shot herself in the arm after grabbing a gun in a parked car in Augusta, Ga. She is also expected to survive.
Last year, a Washington Post analysis found that toddlers were finding guns and shooting people at a rate of about one a week. This year, that pace has accelerated. There have been at least 23 toddler-involved shootings since Jan. 1, compared with 18 over the same period last year.
In the vast majority of cases, the children accidentally shoot themselves. That's happened 18 times this year, and in nine of those cases the children died of their wounds.
Toddlers have shot other people five times this year. Two of those cases were fatal: this week's incident in Milwaukee, and that of a 3-year-old Alabama boy who fatally shot his 9-year-old brother in February.
These numbers represent only a small fraction of gun violence involving children. For instance, the pro-gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety has found at least 77 instances this year in which a child younger than 18 has accidentally shot someone. And there is a whole different universe of gun violence in which toddlers are shot, intentionally or not, by adults.
Looking at a map of where toddlers are pulling the trigger, some states stand out sharply.
Georgia is home to the highest number of toddler shootings, with at least eight incidents since January 2015. Texas and Missouri are tied for second place with seven shootings each, while Florida and Michigan are tied for fourth, with six shootings apiece.
You might think that toddler shootings are simply a function of population -- the more people who live in an area, the more toddlers are likely to shoot someone. But that doesn't appear to be wholly the case. California and New York are two high-population states that have seen only three toddler shootings between them since 2015.
And Illinois, home to infamously high rates of gun violence in Chicago, has not seen a single toddler shooting since 2015.
This suggests that other factors may be at play in the states that see disproportionately high numbers of shootings by toddlers. Missouri and Georgia, for instance, have fairly lax laws regulating how guns are stored to prevent child access. On the other hand, New York has no such child access laws in place, yet only one toddler has shot someone there since 2015.
Perhaps other factors are at play as well. There could be cultural factors -- norms surrounding gun use and ownership, for instance -- that may make these shootings more likely in some areas than in others.
Sussing out cause and effect in these cases, in other words, is still largely a guessing game. And it's a game made much more difficult by Congress's efforts to restrict the type of gun research that agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are allowed to conduct.
Until 2004, for instance, the CDC routinely asked Americans about whether they stored guns at home, and whether they made a habit of locking them up. That's no longer the case.
At Least 265 People Were Accidentally Shot by Kids in 2015
Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post
(December 31, 2015) -- On Monday, three days after Christmas, the four-year-old son of an Alaska state trooper had just returned home from sledding. He was playing by himself in the living room. His mom and grandmother were not far away, in the kitchen, the Alaska Dispatch News reports.
But somehow the boy, William Anderson, found a gun belonging to his father. The gun went off and killed William.
This type of thing happens more than it should. At least 265 children under the age of 18 picked up a firearm and accidentally shot themselves or someone else with it in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
That works out to about five accidental shootings by children each week this year. Of those, 83 ended in death: The underage shooters killed themselves 41 times and other people 42 times. It's important to note that this tally only includes accidental shootings. It doesn't include homicides by teens and suicides.
The shootings usually seem to happen when a kid finds an unsecured gun at home, like William did. 148 of the shootings happened at the victim's house, 31 more happened at a friend's house, and another 28 happened at the home of a family member.
The shooters tend to be toddlers or young kids firing guns completely on accident or teens playing with guns recklessly, as this chart from Everytown shows.
It's unclear whether these numbers are going up or down, because this is the first time these figures have been tallied. "This is the first attempt at making an account at this scale and this degree, and we as an organization started doing it this year," said Ted Alcorn, Everytown's research director, in an interview.
Alcorn stresses that this number is an undercount. They spend time verifying each shooting via news reports and follow-ups with law enforcement. There are about 30 more shooting cases that they're still working on verifying for the year, he said.
The CDC does tally unintentional gun deaths among children, for instance. But investigations by the New York Times and other groups have found that these numbers are typically undercounted, sometimes drastically, due to idiosyncrasies in how coroners and medical examiners keep their records.
"We wanted to look more deeply at what happens when children get access to firearms, and then harm someone unintentionally," Alcorn said. "If a child gets harmed with a gun and gets medical care and survives, we should be just as concerned with that as with one that is fatal."
Taken in isolation, the individual narratives of each incident compiled by Everytown read like freak accidents:
* Jacob Allan, 13, was walking down the stairs of his grandmother's house with his hunting rifle when he tripped and fell, causing the gun to discharge, shooting him in the head. He was taken to a local hospital and died later that day.
* A pair of grandparents were babysitting their three-year-old grandson when the boy found a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun on a nightstand next to the bed he was napping in, and shot himself in the head with it. He died two days later at an area hospital.
* A three-year-old girl was trying to get a snack out of a cabinet at her father's house when a handgun that was stashed on the shelf fell and discharged when it hit the floor, shooting the girl in the stomach. The girl was taken to a local hospital and died a few hours later.
But as the title of Everytown's report implies, these shootings and injuries aren't complete accidents. Prior research by the group found that proper gun storage -- locked up and unloaded -- could prevent 70 percent of accidental shooting deaths of children.
Smart regulation can help. "Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have some laws on the books that, to varying degrees, hold gun owners criminally liable if children access their guns," Everytown reported last year.
And research suggests these laws work: A 2005 study found that child access prevention (CAP) laws in 10 states prevented 829 injuries in 2001, saving $37 million in medical costs. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 found that CAP laws prevented 333 teen suicides between 1989 and 2001.
Even more important than the legislation, though, is the change in societal norms that comes with it. "In the end, it's much more important that communities, parents, and gun owners just adopt a slightly different perspective around how they store firearms to make sure they're safe," Alcorn said.
Finally, Alcorn points out that data are limited on these shootings because of a Congressional rule that restricts the CDC from conducting research that can be construed as advocating for gun control. Up until 2004, for instance, the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance survey asked people about whether they kept firearms at home and if they were locked up.
But now, "the CDC no longer tracks that. As part of the fallout of the attacks on CDC by Congress, they ultimately withdrew those questions and have not asked them in the last 10 years," Alcorn said. "This is a continued blind spot on the most important way to reduce these injuries and deaths -- which is to change the norms around how people store firearms."
Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
One map shows why America's gun violence is so much worse than anywhere else
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