The debate over gun control in America has, to this point, not included children's access to guns. But according to a front-page New York Times report ("Children and Guns: The Hidden Toll") published Sunday, accidental child gun deaths occur roughly twice as often as publicly reported.
More than half of 259 accidental firearm deaths of children aged 14 and younger reviewed by the Times were not recorded as accidents, the paper said, mostly because of inconsistencies in way such deaths are classified by authorities. Many are classified as homicides rather than accidents, the Times said, because most medical examiners and coroners "simply call any death in which one person shoots another a homicide."
The report argues that incorrect reporting of child gun deaths has contributed to the failure of "safe storage" laws opposed by the National Rifle Association, and curtailed development of "smart gun" technology to make the weapons childproof.
In nearly all of the child shooting deaths reviewed by the paper, the shooter was male, as were more than 80 percent of the victims — highlighting an "almost magnetic attraction of firearms among boys," the Times said. "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."
The paper's report included numerous heartbreaking examples of accidental child gun deaths, like this one:
On a hot and humid August afternoon last year in Hinesville, Ga., Matthew Underhill, a staff sergeant in the Army, was mowing the lawn while his wife, Tessa, was in the house watching television with their 5-year-old son, Matthew. Their other son, Tristan, 2, was scampering down a hallway toward the bedrooms.
It had been a good day for Tristan. He had used the potty for the first time. He and his mother had danced a little jig. Down the hall, Tristan entered the bedroom where his father had been staying because of quarrels with his wife. She had chided her husband in the past for forgetting to safely store his .45-caliber handgun. But he had recently put a lock on his door to keep out his wife and children. He thought he had locked the door before going out to cut the grass.
Tristan Underhill, 2, died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound after he found his father's gun under a pillow in an unlocked bedroom.
The lock, though, had failed to catch. Tristan found the loaded gun under the pillow on his father’s bed. He pointed it at his own forehead and pulled the trigger. Hearing the gunshot, Sergeant Underhill sprinted inside to find Tristan face down on the bed, the gun beneath him. When he called 911, the sergeant was screaming so hysterically that the dispatcher initially mistook him for a woman.
“My 2-year-old just shot himself in the head,” he said breathlessly. “He’s dead.”
Not surprisingly, reaction to the report, like the gun control debate itself, has been deeply divided, with gun control advocates calling for safe storage laws, and gun rights advocates claiming the paper's use of child killings is sensational.
"Guns should be strictly locked up at all times," one commenter wrote. "They are an insane first choice for self defense."
"The thing that needs to be understood is that the NRA and its supporters really don't care what the consequences are of lax gun laws," wrote another. "All considerations are secondary to the unfettered availability of firearms."
Others, though, said the Times ignored statistics in favor of heartstrings. "For every child death from a gun, 100 drown in pools," one wrote.
"Each of these stories in wrenching and breaks my heart," wrote another. "But it doesn't take much research to find that close to 9,000 U.S. children died from accidents in 2012. The largest percentage by motor vehicle. ... Millions of children are safely exposed to guns each year. Millions learn to handle guns safely and treat them with respect. Millions have grown up to serve the nation in the armed forces. This has been going on since the beginning of the Republic. I learned to shoot when I was 12."
"The NYT's major finding is that about half of accidental child firearm deaths are misclassified in the statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control," Robert VerBruggen wrote on RealClearPolicy.com. "Obviously, this is a huge problem in terms of data collection. But the report's authors seem to think it's also a game-changer in terms of how we should think about accidental gun death, which gun-rights supporters have argued is very rare."