Children and fatal shootings
Children under age 12 die from gun accidents in the United States about once a week, on average. Almost every death begins with the same basic circumstances: an unsecured and loaded gun, a guardian’s lapse in attention.
USA TODAY and AP
Two young children were shot by a toddler in Dearborn Wednesday morning. Seventy miles north in Flint, a 2-year-old boy was in critical condition after accidentally shooting himself that same morning.
The day of accidental shootings — perpetrated by kids and victimizing kids — is shining a light on a tragic trend and reigniting old battles over laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of children.
Following the incident in Dearborn, where two 3-year-old boys were rushed to the hospital in critical condition after being shot by a fellow toddler at an unlicensed home daycare, gun-safety advocates rushed to highlight areas they believe are lacking when it comes to best practices in the state.
“Storing guns responsibly — locked and unloaded, with ammunition stored separately — is a critical step that every gun owner can take to protect kids and adults alike from the life-threatening consequences of a curious toddler getting access to a gun,” Emily Durbin, volunteer chapter leader for the Michigan chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, wrote in a statement following the Dearborn incident Wednesday. “We’re thinking today of each of the families affected by this horrifying shooting.”
At issue in Michigan are provisions known as Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws — statutes that hold gun owners accountable for storing firearms and hold owners liable if they fail to take measures to keep guns out of the hands of children.
While Michigan prohibits licensed dealers from selling a firearm without a trigger lock, gun case or other storage container, it has no CAP law on the books that requires guns to be locked when at home.
“It is one of the few areas of gun policy evaluations where we do have multiple studies that all point in the same direction — that these Child Access Prevention laws, when enacted, are effective in reductions in both accidental deaths of children and also suicides of adolescents and teens,” said Jon Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
A 1997 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that between 1990 and 1994, 12 states had safe storage laws in effect for at least a year and in those states, accidental shooting deaths for kids under 15 dropped by 23% during the years covered by the legislation.
“From my perspective, there really is no excuse for a state not to have a CAP law,” Vernick said.
Still, while gun-safety groups have been fierce proponents for such laws, the numbers don’t seem to be budging.
Today, only 18 states plus Washington, D.C., have CAP laws — with D.C. being the only new addition in the last decade.
The lackluster response is partly because of the strong opposition they’ve run into from powerful gun-rights groups, including the National Rifle Association.
In “Added Agony,” an investigation by USA TODAY and the Associated Press, NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker explained that her group opposes “one-size fits all government mandates” and believed current laws were enough to handle gun accidents.
Gun rights groups believe the focus should be on safety campaigns aimed at parents and children. The NRA’s Eddie the Eagle teaches kids in preschool through fourth grade about gun safety.
“It’s the gun equivalent to stop, drop and roll. My kids can recite it,” parent Lisa L. wrote in a testimonial on the Eddie the Eagle site.
Others say educational campaigns alone don’t go far enough.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whose county sees a large portion of Michigan’s accidental gun-related incidents (one-third of all incidents between January 2014 and June 2016 occurred in Detroit), has been a proponent of CAP laws.
“These deaths are highly preventable,” Worthy told the Detroit Free Press in a 2016 interview on the topic of gun accidents involving kids. “I can’t really have influence over a drive-by shooting or a parent that beats their child to death or something like that, but I think we can have an effect on these deaths that are completely preventable in many ways. … If you have a gun in the home and you think your child doesn’t know where it is or how it operates, you’re living in a fantasy world.”
According to data collected by USA TODAY and the Associated Press, between January 1, 2014, and June 30, 2016, 11 Michigan children under the age of 12 either killed themselves or were mistakenly shot and killed by another child. The state was one of four nationally — in a group with Ohio, Texas and Georgia — that had more than 10 accidental gun deaths involving kids under the age of 12.
Broadening the data to include older children, the news organizations found that a total of 17 minors either killed themselves or were mistakenly shot and killed by another minor.
Scaling back even more to include not only deaths but injuries, the data revealed that there were a total of 49 incidents in the state — 16 of which occurred in Detroit.
Michigan ranked sixth in the nation for incidents — coming up behind Texas (96), Florida (83), Ohio (74), Georgia (66) and Tennessee (52).
When the data was converted to incidents per million people, Michigan had a rate of 4.94 — still higher than the national average, which was 3.41.
Without CAP laws, gun safety advocates argue that not only are children more likely to come across a loaded gun, but that accountability can be fuzzy.
While nationally there were 152 incidents where children under the age of 12 either shot and killed themselves or were shot and killed by another minor, when USA Today and the Associated Press dug into the incidents, they found that only about half of the accidents led to criminal charges.
While Michigan prosecutors filed charges against people in all 11 kids’ gun deaths, there remains a belief that CAP laws would lead to better prosecution by clarifying what charges could be brought.
For the incidents in Michigan between January 2014 and June 2016, for example, parents and guardians prosecuted following the deaths of children by children were charged with either manslaughter or child abuse. A CAP law would fill the gap and give a more specific, intermediary charge that matches the crime of not safeguarding a firearm.
“(People) can be held criminally responsible for improper storage issues and not taking the normal regular precautions you take if you have a dangerous weapon,” Worthy told the Free Press in 2016, explaining how her office currently charges people in these cases. “… Still, the bottom line is the message has to be sent that your direct actions or inaction may be the cause of death for your child or grandchild or maybe the child next door.”
Vernick of Johns Hopkins agreed that CAP laws would help force gun owners to make safety a priority.
“One function of law is it tells people what behaviors are expected of you,” he said. “At 3 a.m. on a lonely road when no one is around, you still stop at a stop sign. Not because you expect to be prosecuted if you don’t, but because it’s a norm, society expects you too.”
Contact Allie Gross: email@example.com. Twitter: @Allie_Elisabeth.