Gun Control: Why Tell the Truth When a Lie Will Do?
A recent Washington Post article claims “More than 500 children die annually from accidental gunshots: Some shoot themselves, while others kill friends or siblings, often after discovering a gun.”
To understand how a biased or under-educated writer makes an inaccurate and misleading error, we must first clarify the term “child”. Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “childhood” as: “The state or stage of life as a child…the time from birth to puberty.” Oxford defines “puberty” as: “The period during which adolescents reach sexual maturity and become capable of reproduction, distinguished by the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics.” In terms of age, there seems to be general agreement that this ability to procreate occurs by the age of 15: childhood is over by then.
Citing 2003 data from the Centers for Disease Control–the latest available online–and using the standard definition of “child”, the number of accidental firearms deaths was 56, and the total number for minors (under age 18) was 102. To reach the number stated in the article, we must include all fatal firearms accidents through age 45.Do Child Access Protection Laws Work?
The Post article contains a link to a page covering Child Access Protection (CAP) laws. The idea behind CAP laws is to “hold gun owners responsible if they leave guns easily accessible to children and a child improperly gains access to the weapon.” By preventing unsupervised access to guns, children are supposedly protected from accidental gunshot injury. Citing 1990 through 2003 CDC data and cross-referencing by CAP laws, we can determine if there is consistent data showing that the laws benefit children. (Because of state CAP laws vary in age criteria, and because the total number of true children accidentally shot is too low to reliably determine trends, statistics cited here are for all minors.)
For those states which enacted CAP laws by the early 1990s, accidental firearms deaths dropped an average of 4% more than states without such laws between 1990 and 2003.* However, accidental deaths in CAP states for all causes dropped 5% more than non-CAP states, indicating there may be non-firearm factors influencing minors’ accidental death rates.
For states which enacted CAP laws during the mid-1990s, accidental firearms deaths dropped at the same rate as states without such laws from 1995-2003. However, these CAP states saw a 8% rise in their accidental firearms death rate between 2000 and 2003, resulting in the non-CAP states’ rate dropping 32.6% more during this period. This again shows that other dynamics affected these trends. These data do not support the idea that CAP laws had any consistent positive effect on accidental firearms death rates for minors.A Right-To-Carry Effect?
A caveat: When it comes to comparing accidental firearms death rates, a very small variation from year to year can make a very large change in the rate because we are talking about very small numbers to begin with. For instance, a state may have one death one year, and if they have two next year, this makes the rate jump 100%. However, when compared to the entire population, the rate is still miniscule: much less than one per 100,000 population. (Many states often have zero in a given year.) Comparing one group of states against another group helps level these statistical bumps, but we are still dealing with a small total. If each state within one group has one more death in a given year, this can alter the average rate for the group by 10% or more.
On the other hand, the Harvard paper cited in the Washington Post article studies a total of “201 parents and an equal number of their children.” Including all CAP states, my data set comprises a total of more than 146 million, and over 37 million for the second comparison of states which enacted CAP laws in the mid-1990s. The validity concerns I freely admitted in my caveat are far more relevant for the Harvard study, yet it is accepted at face value by the Washington Post. Therefore, according to Post criteria, my results are at least as valid as the Harvard study.
A recent paper noted two important points: Violence Policy Center called right-to-carry states “pro-gun,” and previous public health researchers have demonstrated how to manipulate miniscule data sets to “prove” anti-gun assumptions. Using VPC criteria, we can compare the accidental death rates for right-to-carry states to the group of states that VPC would call “not pro-gun” in order to see if this difference in attitude makes a difference in the rate of accidental firearm deaths for minors.
The first comparison looks at all CAP states. Between 1990 and 1995, non-RTC states with CAP laws saw about a 36.5% greater drop in the accidental firearms death rate than RTC CAP states. However, between 1995 and 2000, the trend reversed and RTC states saw a 21.5% greater decrease. Both groups experienced the same drop between 1990 and 2000, and from 1995 through 2003, RTC CAP states saw a 6.9% greater drop in accidental firearms fatalities than non-RTC states.
Of the states that enacted CAP laws in the mid-1990s, between 1995 and 2003 non-RTC states saw a drop of 6.5% more in their rate of accidental firearms deaths for minors. But between 2000 and 2003, that trend reversed and non-RTC states saw an increase in their accidental firearms death rate, while the rate in RTC states dropped another 20%. This trend runs counter to the accidental death rate for all causes, where non-RTC states saw an 18.5% greater decrease between 2000 and 2003. This again shows that other factors besides firearms availability affect accidental death rates.
The Harvard researcher quoted in the article denigrates safety education programs like Eddie Eagle:
Relying solely on strategies that seek to dampen the natural curiosity of a child, such as telling children guns are dangerous, or assuming that a child will be unfailingly obedient and never touch a weapon if he finds one, is ineffective at best.
This is a curious conclusion to draw when there is no reliable data showing that CAP laws are more effective in protecting children from accidental shootings, especially since accidental firearms death rates for minors dropped over 70% nationwide since 1990 while only 18 states have enacted CAP laws.Conclusion
When comparing data sets of tens of millions of people over 13 years to Harvard’s 402 total covering one point in time, which is more believable? Sometimes statistics are manipulated and misquoted for the purpose of scaring people into taking actions that thoughtful investigation would render either inadvisable or even downright dangerous.Notes
* Excerpted from Excel Workbook CAP and Child Safety. Email request for spreadsheet
Disclaimer: The author is not in any way implying that safety precautions are unnecessary. Children should be taught to respect firearms. Firearms should always be stored unloaded in a manner which renders them inaccessible to children, with ammunition stored in a separate inaccessible place. Firearms or no, the greatest guarantor of child safety always has been, and always will be, adult supervision.
About the Author
Howard Nemerov publishes with ChronWatch and other sites, and is a frequent guest on NRA News. His first book, Gun Control: Fear or Fact? deconstructs and explains the gun control agenda and its arguments, debunking each one with a statistic-rich analysis. This is the handbook for when you want to talk to others about gun control.