Politics & Policy

Children and Guns: The Fear and the Reality

Kids are much likelier to die in swimming-pool accidents.

Should you ask your neighbors if they own a gun before your child plays at their house? And what do you do if they say yes?

After the tragic accidental death this month of a two-year-old Kentucky girl who had been shot by her five-year-old brother, the answer may seem obvious: Do not let your child play at a gun owner’s home, at least if you are not sure he is locking up his guns.

This shooting came just a couple of days after a prominent opinion piece in the Motherlode blog at the New York Times, in which a parent, Lisa Maxbauer, worried about her six-year-old’s visiting homes of gun owners. Another recent article at CNN, by Judith Palfrey, warned readers: “Never keep a loaded gun in the house or the car,” and “guns and ammunition should be locked away safely in separate locations in the house.”

The CDC reports that for 2010 (the latest year available), one single six-year old died from a gunshot. For all children younger than 10, there were 36 accidental gun deaths, and that is out of 41 million children. Perhaps most important, about two-thirds of these accidental gun deaths involving young children are not shots fired by other little kids but rather by adult males with criminal backgrounds. In other words, unless you send your child to play at a criminal’s home, she is exceedingly unlikely to get shot.

Indeed, if you are going to worry about your child’s safety you should check into other, perhaps less obvious dangers lurking in the playmate’s house: swimming pools, bathtubs, water buckets, bicycles, and chemicals and medications that can cause fatal poisoning. Drownings alone claimed 609 deaths; fires, 262 lives; poisonings, 54 lives. And don’t forget to ask about the playmate’s parents’ car and their driving records if your child will ride with them: After all, motor-vehicle accidents killed 923 children younger than 10.

In her CNN article, Judith Palfrey wrote: “According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6,570 people ages 1 to 24 died from firearm injuries in 2010. That’s 18 people every day and a staggering seven a day for children ages 1 to 19.” But these numbers tell us nothing about the point of her piece: the risk to young children of guns in the home. About 56 percent of her number comes from homicides for 17- to 24-year-olds, which overwhelmingly involve gang activity and drugs. Another 27 percent involves suicides for 18- to 24-year-olds, and she ignores the overwhelming research showing that people can easily commit suicides in many different ways.

Let us not forget that guns do provide self-defense, as I examine in detail in More Guns, Less Crime. Guns are used defensively some 2 million times each year. Even though the police are extremely important in reducing crime, they simply can’t be there all the time and virtually always arrive after the crime has been committed. Defending oneself with a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal. In several recent cases in which guns in the home were locked and inaccessible, the intruders killed the children in the home.

My research on juvenile accidental gun deaths for all U.S. states shows that mandates that guns be locked up had no impact. What did happen in states with such mandates, however, was that criminals attacked more people in their homes and crimes were more successful: 300 more total murders and 4,000 more rapes occurred each year in these states. Burglaries also rose dramatically. The evidence also indicates that states with the biggest increases in gun ownership have seen the biggest drops in violent crime.

Asking neighbors about guns not only strains relationships, it also exaggerates the dangers and ignores the benefits from guns. In the end, some good might come out of all this gun phobia: If your neighbor asks if you own a gun, rather than sarcastically asking whether they own a space heater, why not teach them about guns and offer to go to a shooting range together?

John Lott is a former chief economist at the United States Sentencing Commission and the author of More Guns, Less Crime and, most recently, At the Brink.

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