Politics & Policy

A Child and an Uzi

Video-camera image from the Bullets and Burgers gun range.
Serious gun accidents among children have fallen as gun ownership has risen.

Certain gun-related events affect us especially strongly, whichever side of the gun-rights debate we are on. The event often involves children who become the center of tragedies — caught in school shootings, in crossfire, or, what in some ways is worst, in their own acts performed innocently. A current example is the death, at the hands of a nine-year-old girl, of an instructor at the Bullets and Burgers Last Stop Arizona shooting range. We grieve for the instructor and his family, for the girl’s family, and in a particular way for the girl, who will grow up being the only person she knows who has killed another human being.

Of course, we’d address the problem in different ways. Many, in and beyond the medical profession, see every gun injury and death as a preventable “health issue” if only we applied the correct “public health” interventions. That’s a fancy name for the Left’s belief in government-imposed “remedies.” “Why would a shooting range allow a kid to handle an automatic weapon?” writes E. J. Montini at AZCentral.com. “Why would a parent? And, most importantly [my emphasis], why would a state?”

Indeed, some states have laws that prohibit providing firearms to children. Of course, such laws can also prohibit children from being trained in the most important aspect of gun safety: how to use guns. As a public-policy question, how large is the problem of children firing Uzis on automatic? There is one other case in the past six years of a child killing someone (himself) with automatic fire. More tragedy, but two incidents in six years do not an epidemic make, not even a trend.

In 2011, among children up to age 14, only 74 died in firearm accidents. That’s just 2.3 percent of the 4,175 total accidental deaths, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. Accidental firearm deaths in this age group have been rather steady since 1999, despite a near-doubling of gun purchases (as implied by the volume of NICS checks, a proxy for the numbers of purchases). The numbers of adults killed accidentally by children are harder to come by.

The frequency of serious gun accidents among children decreases as gun ownership increases. The reason for this has to be improved education for young people becoming acquainted with firearms — for example, the Eddie the Eagle GunSafe program sponsored by the National Rifle Association, and Project ChildSafe, sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

In the two heartbreaking accidental deaths resulting from children’s use of automatic firearms since 2008, there were some common factors. Both children demonstrated too late their inability to control these powerful weapons on automatic fire. In each case, we might wonder why the instructor did not steady the weapon by gripping it as the child held it. The parents are, and will always feel, ultimately responsible for the safety of their children and for judging their abilities as they develop. While we can learn from our hindsight critique of adult mistakes in these two cases, let’s recognize that a great many children (and adults) have emerged unscathed from their experience of safely, successfully shooting automatic weapons in these venues.

There is no medical or policy cure for mistakes in judgment by caring adults responsible for the welfare of children. There is every reason to ensure serious instruction, at home and on site, for anyone serious about using serious weapons. And those are actually anything that fires a projectile, can stab or slash, or break bones. We must simply teach our children well.

— Robert B. Young, M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in Pittsford, N.Y., and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

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