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The picture is simultaneously appalling and appealing -- an
infant playing with what appears to be a pistol. The issue is
children and firearms. What's wrong with the picture is that the
issue of "children" and firearms abuse, of firearms-related violence
and death, virtually never involves an infant. In an average year,
the number of infants killed, accidentally or criminally, with
firearms is on the order of 10, out of nearly 40,000 infant deaths
each year. (NSC [National Safety Council], 1992:22; FBI [Federal
Bureau of Investigation], 1992:18) The "child" whose gun misuse has
raised the number of gun-related deaths in the past few years to the
point where some call it "epidemic" is a teenager without morals or
manners or a hope for the future, whose experience with drugs suggests
that banning a product does not much concern him.
But attacking the problem of "children and guns" is
politically appealing. Among the leading anti-gun organizations, the
federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that
fact in the special "violence" issue of the Journal of the American
Medical Association (JAMA): "There is no controversy in the area of
children having unsupervised access to loaded guns. No one believes
that children should have unsupervised access to guns, but few people
are doing anything to prevent children from having such access. This,
at least, is a place to start...while we in public health continue to
explore the scientific issues associated with this question, through
careful research and the evaluation of existing programs designed to
reduce ready access to guns." (Rosenberg et al., 1992)
With criminological evidence pointing more and more to the
irrelevancy of general gun availability to violence, or gun laws to
availability or violent crimes (Wright et al., 1983; Kleck, 1991),
alternative attacks on firearms have become popular. These include
inventing problems where there are no clear data, and no
criminological studies exist, such as non-existent "plastic" guns,
vaguely defined "assault weapons," and unavailable armor-piercing
ammunition. More generally, children provide an interesting basis for
suggesting restricting access to firearms. Children are innocent,
where so many adults involved with firearms abuse are not. And, as
was noted, no one defends unsupervised access to firearms by children.
Children also invite rhetoric against claiming the
Constitution prohibits restricting firearms. As Dr. Katherine
K. Christoffel told Congress, "No one can believe that our Founding
Fathers, in crafting the Second Amendment, intended to leave American
children as vulnerable to firearm violence as they are today."
(U.S. House of Representatives, 1989:40) Actually, of course, our
Founding Fathers begot more than just a Constitution and a Bill of
Rights. Guns were readily available; the nature of gun use
(opportunistic hunting, home and community protection) encouraged them
to be kept loaded more than today; and technologically the arms and
ammunition were such that accidental discharges were more likely. And
the urban homicide rates were apparently high, and at least as subject
to unfortunate comparisons with England as today. (Davis, 1957:242)
The timing of the interest by the CDC and others is curious.
Most of the increase in firearm misuse had peaked by about 1979-81
(Fingerhut and Kleinman, 1989), and the trend of firearm misuse, among
women and children in particular, was downward during the early 1980s.
The National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH, now the Coalition to
Stop Gun Violence [CSGV]) and Handgun Control, Inc.(HCI), however, had
begun focusing on children's misuse of firearms as a particular
problem by the mid-1980s, and the CDC followed suit, pursuant to
getting Congress to authorize such concern with injury deaths among
"children" in 1986.
Part of the expressed justification for the current emphasis
is that firearms violence has spread to the suburbs and rural areas,
and is not confined to inner-city blacks. That was the reason given
by Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical
Association, and Lois Fingerhut, of the CDC's National Center for
Health Statistics (NCHS), at the press conference held in Washington,
D.C., on June 9, 1992, to herald the release of the June 10th issue of
the Journal, and the release of the June issues of nine other AMA
publications, each of which featured at least one article on the
subject of violence. It is a commonly expressed message in the
popular media. For example, "The problem is not confined to big
cities like New York and Los Angeles. Kids have been gunned down in
small towns like Obetz, Ohio, and Crosby, Texas." (DeClaire,
1992:30-32.) Or "this onslaught of childhood violence knows no
boundaries of race, geography, or class." (Henkoff, 1992)
But saying something has occurred some place is different from
establishing that the problem approaches being similarly serious all
places. One of the articles released by the CDC in JAMA emphasized
the vast degree of difference in the problem of violence, homicide,
and gun-related homicide among different groups. The gun-related
homicide rate among males 15-19 years of age varied dramatically based
upon race and location. Among big-city blacks, the rate was about 144
per 100,000; among rural blacks, the rate was 89% lower, at 15. In
central cities, the white rate was about 21 (Fingerhut et al., 1992),
and an analysis of some of the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports
would suggest this means the non-Hispanic white rate was probably in
the 10-12 range. For the most part, gun-related violence is a growing
problem among young urban black (and Hispanic) males. For girls,
women, and men over the age of 30, gun-related violence was stable or
decreasing in the 1980s. (Fingerhut and Kleinman, 1989; Fingerhut et
al., 1991; Hammett et al., 1992) Even one of the articles describing
the problem as "epidemic" noted that the 50% increase in mortality of
late in the "urban pediatric population" occurred with no change or a
slight decline in the suburban and national pediatric populations.
(Ropp et al., 1992)
Nonetheless, to make a case for more restrictive gun laws, the
CDC, other anti-gun organizations, and their friends in the media,
produce a number of false or misleading statements. Many of the
statements are accurate but irrelevant, for example noting percentage
breakdowns of different types of gun-related death or different
locations for accidents. Some of the statements might be described as
half-truths, keeping in mind the warning that "half-truths are very
commonly offered us in place of whole truths; and it sometimes happens
that of all forms of falsehood none is so misleading as the
half-truth." (Fiske, 1892:454) Other statements are either
deliberately misleading and occasionally simply false. It might be
flattering to opponents of restrictive gun laws that supporters must
use distortion to buttress a case. But the issue of reducing the
number of deaths among children is a serious one, and should be
addressed seriously, particularly if taxpayer dollars are being
expended, as is the case with the CDC. Everyone is against children
killing children, but some of the statements calling attention to the
problem and proposing solutions are less than honest, whether produced
by the CDC, inspired by the CDC, or merely enjoyed by the CDC.
A dramatic increase in the ranking of firearms as a leading
"cause" of death in "children," expanding beyond the ghetto to the
suburbs and even rural areas, affecting children with dramatic
increases in the number of injuries threatening trauma centers, is
said to have spurred the interest of "pediatricians" and other public
health professionals in reducing firearms-related violence.
Unfortunately, the use of terms is flawed and fluid.
Medically, children would generally include those around 0-14;
those would be the persons most apt to be treated by pediatricians,
and most apt to be designated in various statistical studies dividing
society into three age groups: pediatrics, 0-14; adults, 15-64;
geriatrics, 65 and over (Covington et al., 1992). Other governmental
breakdowns use four categories, splitting the "adults" into 15-44 and
45-64, as in the report noting about half the injury rate for children
as for the two categories of adults, and about one-fifth that for
geriatrics. (Graves, 1992) For statistical purposes, the fact that
most data are reported in five- or ten-year age groups, with one
normally ending at 14, helps to justify such a final period for
childhood. In addition, in terms of firearms misuse, persons 15-19
are much more similar to persons 20-24 or 20-29 than to those 10-14
(Kleck, 1991:ch.7). Similarly, in terms of causes of death, the 15-24
age group is much more similar to the 25-34 age group, in terms of
numbers and rank-ordering of causes of death, than it is to the 5-9 or
even 10-14 age group. (Hammett et al., 1992:16-17) A clear definition
of children as being 0-14 is, however, often avoided.
The best example of the problem of the fluidity of the term
"children" is in the materials produced by HCI (and its Center to
Prevent Handgun Violence) and NCBH/CSGV (and its Educational Fund to
End Handgun Violence) to demonstrate the problem. Both advocacy
groups use the same photograph to indicate the problem of children and
firearms: an infant pointing what is supposed to look like a Colt
Model 1911A .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol at its face. (Treanor
and Bijlefeld, 1989:cover photograph; Center to Prevent Handgun
Violence, n.d.) Firearms instructors would, of course, be appalled
at the idea of anyone posing an infant with a gun pointed near its
face, whether out of concern for the child modeling or for other
children who might see the unsafe handling of firearms and seek to
On the other hand, most of the statistics regarding
firearms-related deaths deal with "children" aged 15-19 or even 15-24,
ages at which most violent offenders could, or must, be tried as
adults, ages for which the United States Supreme Court has approved
punishment by execution for capital offenses.
Only slightly better an example of misleading uses of ages
would be an article entitled "Kids & Guns," published by a Washington
State Group Health Cooperative, featuring a cover photograph of a
handgun being held by a male apparently about the age of 8-12. The
article highlights a statement: "Homicide and suicide are the second
and third leading killers among 15- to 24-year-olds, just behind car
accidents." (DeClaire, 1992:33) Generally speaking, persons do not
think of the 15-24 age group when thinking of "kids." And, while the
homicide and suicide rates do follow motor vehicle accidents, they
follow a considerable distance behind, with twice as many motor
vehicle accidental deaths as either suicide or homicide (NSC, 1991:7).
The reason for using the higher age groups is that those are
the ones most involved in firearms-related violence, whether
accidental, suicidal, or assaultive. Defining "children" as ending at
19, 81 percent of gun-related deaths involve persons over 14; defining
children as ending at 24, 91 percent of gun-related deaths involve
persons over 14. (Fingerhut, et al., 1991:11) It is easier to find a
serious problem justifying massive public and legislative interest in
4,000 or 8,500 deaths than in about 750.
To further emphasize the relationship of firearms to deaths
among the young, not only are persons nearer to adulthood in law and
medicine treated as children, but very young children are removed from
consideration. Ignoring persons under the age of one provides two
benefits to those seeking to maximize the apparent dangers of firearms
to children. First, it allows the removal of 70% of deaths from the
0-14 age group. And of the nearly 40,000 deaths among children under
one year of age, roughly ten involve firearms; the big killers are
such natural causes as conditions originating in the perinatal period,
congenital anomalies, and sudden infant death syndrome. (NSC,
1991:6-7,22; FBI, 1992:18) Second, by excluding non-firearm deaths,
the percentage of firearm-related deaths rises. When the CDC
announced that 11% of deaths of "children" involved firearms, the
official report (Fingerhut et al., 1989), but not the press coverage,
emphasized that "children" was not merely extended to 19 but excluded
those under one. Otherwise, the percentage figure would have fallen
to about 4.5% for those under 20, or less than 1.5% for those under
15. (Fingerhut et al., 1991; NSC, 1991)
Similarly, rankings of "firearms" as the nth leading "cause"
of death would be muddied, since the three leading causes of death for
infants exceed the number of firearm-related deaths among children
(0-14), and two of those causes of infant mortality exceed the number
of firearms-related deaths among those 0-19.
In addition, however, perhaps to take advantage of mortality
data being on computer tape, public health professionals tend to play
around with the definition of children, creating various age groups
for various rhetorical purposes. In addition to the straight-forward
extension of "children" to include 24-year-olds to near 1,000
accidental deaths in the home where more common definitions would put
it at one-fourth of that (Teret and Wintemute, 1983), Diane Schetky
used such age groups as "young children" (undefined), "young people
aged 13 to 18 years," "college students," and "teenagers." (Schetky,
1985) Another group found the 13-17 age group an interesting one.
(Wilson et al., 1991:149) The CDC's Mark Rosenberg (1992a) used a
12-24 age group. The CDC has also described "teenagers" as being
15-19 (Fingerhut, et al., 1992) and "children, teenagers" as being
10-19 year olds (CDC, 1992a) -- unfortunately in an article which also
defined them as 0-19, leading some in the media to report that a
statement regarding the smaller, older group (third leading cause of
accidental death) applied to the larger, younger one, about which it
was not true. There is no indication that the CDC has written to any
news media outlets to correct the misreporting; it is unclear whether
the CDC varies age group definitions deliberately to confuse
not-very-bright and generally careless reporters.
Perhaps the most absurd apparent definition of children was
that used by Congress in enacting Public Law 99-649, calling for a
study of injuries to "children." The legislative findings -- part of
the Act of Congress -- asserted that injuries caused the deaths of
half of "children" 1-15 and two-thirds of all deaths of "children"
over the age of 15. In order for that to be approximately true,
Congress's view of "children" was that they constituted persons aged
1-34 or 1-35. For younger "children," the data available to Congress
would have indicated that injuries were the cause of 75-80% of deaths.
"Pediatrics" and "Pediatricians"
The issue of defining "children" is especially significant in
explaining the interest of the American Academy of Pediatrics in
firearms. In January 1992, the AAP announced its support of highly
restrictive gun laws -- perhaps including bans on handguns,
semi-automatic "assault weapons," and "deadly air guns" -- noting the
data and trends on gun-related deaths and injuries among "children."
(AAP, 1992; AAP Committee on Adolescence, 1992; AAP Committee on
Injury and Poison Prevention, 1992) Speaking on behalf of its 42,000
member pediatricians, the position was justified because of injuries
and deaths "affecting the pediatric population." Data were presented
including age 0-19 (AAP Committee on Adolescence, 1992), but with
emphasis on 15-19 year olds, even to the exclusion of those under one
year of age (AAP Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, 1992).
Naturally, the AAP felt obligated to explain why firearms were
of great concern to pediatricians, and did so by assuming the
pediatric population was suffering from gun-related injuries. The
data, however, suggested otherwise. About 86% of pediatric patients
are in the 0-10 age group (Woodwell, 1992:3), involving under 250
gun-related deaths, or about 0.5% of deaths in the 0-10 age group
(NSC, 1991:22; Kleck, 1991) and about 2% of the deaths in the 1-10 age
group. Those gun-related deaths represent less than one percent of
all gun-related deaths which occur annually in the United States.
Indeed, most pediatric patients (69%) are 0-5 years of age, an age
group which suffers approximately 150 firearms-related deaths out of
about 47,000 deaths annually. Virtually all of firearms-related
deaths among those under 20 (94%) occur in the 10-19 age group, which
account for about 12% of pediatric patients. And, of course, the
sorts of persons most involved in firearms-related violence for
socioeconomic reasons generally receive less than average medical
Nonetheless, the AAP justified its concern over "children" by
noting that "one out of six pediatricians reported that he or she had
treated a child for a gun-related injury" during the preceding year.
(AAP 1992; AAP 1989a) The survey report is accurate, but may be
misleading for a number of reasons. First of all, the term
"gun-related injury" included air guns, in addition to rifles,
shotguns, and handguns. The percentage falls to about 10% having
treated handgun-related injuries during the preceding year, and about
3.5% treated long-gun-related injuries. (About 8% of pediatricians
reported treating gun-related injuries related to criminal or
gang-related activity, which might raise concerns about the likely
impact of restrictive measures.) (AAP, 1989b)
Second, the survey showed dramatic differences between those
treating patients as part direct patient care and other pediatricians.
Those in direct patient care were less likely than other pediatricians
to treat such injuries -- and were more apt to own handguns and less
likely to be involved in promoting community gun control legislation
-- than were other pediatricians responding to the survey. If the
proportion of handgun wounds to all gun (including air gun) wounds
applies, then just over 7% of pediatricians engaged in direct patient
care treated handgun-related injuries during the preceding year. It
should not be surprising that those more apt to work in hospitals
would be more apt to treat all sorts of ailments, particularly, as the
AAP notes, those more apt to be treated in hospital emergency rooms
than in private offices. (Letter from Dr. Ruch-Ross to author.) The
fact remains, however, that the proportion dropped to only 7% likely
to have treated handgun wounds in the preceding year. And estimates
on the number of gunshot wounds occurring annually would suggest that
only about one-third are treated in emergency rooms and the rest in
office visits, or even not at all. (Kleck, 1991:ch. 2)
Third, the survey tells nothing of the relative likelihood of
pediatricians treating different ailments. Published results of
surveys indicated over half of pediatricians had treated child abuse,
and nearly one-third had treated child sexual abuse during the
preceding eight weeks -- respectively, roughly five and three times as
many as had treated gunshot wounds during the preceding twelve months.
Similarly, 20% had treated a "serious bicycle-related injury" within
the previous year, about twice the portion as for handguns, where
seriousness was not reported. (O'Connor, 1991) Not surprisingly, the
data really support the notion that gunshot wounds make up very little
of the ailments treated by pediatricians, and that pediatric patients
make up only a small portion of gun-related violence in America.
And, of course, the survey gives no indication of whether there is a
trend toward greater firearm- or handgun-related violence affecting
children or pediatric patients.
The most popular figure given as a trend is "Since 1986, the
number of gunshot wounds reported in children by major urban trauma
centers has increased 300 percent." (AAP Committee on Adolescence,
1992) Alternatively, this has become: "Gunshot wounds to children ages
16 and under nearly doubled in major urban areas between 1987 and
1990." (Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1991a) In neither case is
there much in the way of justification. The only hard data presented
at a conference of the American Trauma Society (April 1992) involved
an increase to about 125 injuries in hospitals in New York City
(Christoffel, 1992). Nationally, it appears unlikely to be a valid
statistic. The number of homicides and suicides have increased at a
much lower rate; the number of accidental fatalities has been stable.
The argument would have to be that homicides, suicides, and/or
accidents are much less likely to be fatal recently. It is certainly
possible that the shift in the firearms market from revolvers to
semi-automatic pistols (Howe, 1992), which tend to make cleaner
wounds, might slightly lower the fatality rate from assault, but one
noticeable trend in urban youth shootings is for more wounds to be
inflicted, indicative of an apparent increased motivation to kill.
(Webster et al., 1992a)
Nonetheless, the alleged increase in the numbers of young
persons needing treatment for gunshot wounds is blamed for the threat
to the continued existence of trauma centers, and thus another reason
given in support of restrictive gun laws. (Skolnick, 1992) There is a
threat to trauma centers for a variety of reasons, but blaming
something other than the medical community itself seems farfetched.
And some of the actual reasons point out how different the victims of
gun-related violence are from the typical Americans HCI and CDC wishes
the public to believe them to be. Trauma centers are threatened
because new physicians and surgeons do not want to go into emergency
medicine; existing surgeons do not wish to treat trauma victims --
neither the blunt trauma victims (largely from motor vehicle
accidents) nor the penetrating trauma victims (largely from gunshots
and stabbings). The former do not provide surgeons with enough
operations, and surgery residents do not like "the unsavory type of
patients encountered with most penetrating trauma injuries." (Organ,
1992) Those unsavory patients not only do not reimburse surgeons as
well as other patients, but the surgeons do not wish them in the same
office as other patients. The penetrating-trauma patients are not so
well insured as normal patients. At one extreme, it was found that
about 86% of gunshot injury patients were un- or underinsured,
compared to the reverse, 88% of expenditures among hospital patients
being covered by insurance generally. (Martin, et al., 1988;
U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991:Table 140)
In addition to not paying as well as other medical work,
emergency room trauma care increases exposure of physicians and
surgeons in two major ways, not always acknowledged by the medical
profession. Legal exposure is increased, particularly as it has been
estimated that emergency room care is the single leading cause of
"adverse events due to negligence" (Harvard Medical Practice Study,
1990), and some 25,000 of the 150,000 annual deaths from trauma are
due to "an inadequate trauma system." (Organ and Fry, 1992) The other
major exposure for trauma centers is to potentially contaminated
blood. Again, atypically unsavory persons are the victims of
penetrating trauma, whose unhygienic experiences with drugs and sex
may expose them to the AIDS virus. Although the actual risk to HIV
infection by treating physicians and surgeons is very low if universal
precautions are used (Ling, 1992), universal precautions are
universally ignored. (Hammond, et al., 1990) Instead of using
precautions in treating bleeding patients, too many surgeons avoid the
patient altogether. The danger to emergency-room personnel is from
contaminated blood of penetrating wound victims -- generally assault
victims. When those persons die, the official cause of death is
"Causes of Death"
In an effort to make it appear that firearms are the problem
in society, the CDC and others prefer to ignore the International
Classification of Diseases, where homicide, suicide, and accidental
deaths are the causes for most gun-related deaths, and assert that
firearms are a "cause" of death. This rhetorical tool exaggerates the
significant of firearms, while inviting confusion as the rhetoric
switches from various topics. The CDC has asserted in the same year
that firearms and that suicide are the eighth leading "cause" of
death. (Cotton, 1992; Kellermann et al., 1992) Once causes of death
are separated out, and merged with different categories of death, a
certain amount of consistency and certainty in discussion is lost.
The official causes of death separate homicide and suicide from
unintentional injuries (World Health Organization, 1977). But public
health professionals also like to combine various "causes" in
different ways, which will alter the rank-order. When tobacco becomes
a "cause" of death, it outranks cancer (since many malignant neoplasms
must be switched from one category to another); if alcohol is a
"cause" of death, the rank-ordering changes in other ways. Combining
all injury deaths to one "cause" ranks them third or fourth, if
alcohol and tobacco ceases again to be "causes." The medical
profession would presumably be less pleased with combining
unintentional deaths due to medical mistakes into a new cause of death
(Kleck, 1991:43), although it has also been suggested that
hospital-caused blood infections could justifiably be listed as a new
"cause" of death, probably competing with suicide for, now, ninth
place. (Wenzel, 1988)
Once causes of death are revised at the wills of the
advocates and researchers, of course, different groupings and
divisions can be made, some of which may be useful in evaluating
trends and treatments, and some of which are largely rhetorical. Most
scholars will separate out causes of accidental death into motor
vehicle and other; but motor vehicle deaths are further capable of
being broken down into categories by victim, such as passenger,
bicyclist, and pedestrian. At that point, bicycles accidents tend to
supersede firearm accidents as a cause of death among real children,
thus possibly changing some rank-ordering for some age groups.
(Baker and Waller, 1989) Alternatively, cancers and heart diseases
could be broken down into more categories, some of which would be
ahead of "firearms," suicides, and homicides. (NCHS, 1991; CDC,
Another risk in combining the various types of gun-related
deaths is that it leads to otherwise avoidable statistical errors.
For example, by assuming that, overall, there are about 3-5 non-fatal
gun-related injuries for every fatality -- a figure which may be
defended for gun-related assaults, but not for suicide -- public
health activists, such as Katherine Christoffel, have suggested larger
numbers of non-fatal injuries than were likely to have occurred.
(U.S. House of Representatives, 1989:40-49) The more reasonable way to
deal with firearms and children is by discussing the various causes of
death in which firearms may be involved, along with some special
concerns regarding firearms ownership and use by school children.
THE RISK OF ACCIDENTAL DEATHS AND INJURIES
Rhetorically, accidental firearms-related deaths and injuries
provide the focus for much of the CDC and other public health interest
in firearms, as well as in some of HCI's primary legislative
proposals, such as storage requirements or public-health calls for
redesigning handguns to make them "childproof." In one sense, this is
reasonable, since, while firearms accidents normally account for about
five percent of gun-related deaths in the United States, accidents
account for over one-third of children's firearm-related deaths.
(Kleck, 1991; NSC, 1991) On the other hand, accidental
firearms-related deaths among children represent a rather small and
declining number, roughly one-half the figure from the mid-1970s --
and that is true even if children are defined with higher than
pediatric ages. (Kleck, 1991:310)
Studies on the Possible Risks of Firearms Accidents
One result is that some of the CDC's claim that firearms pose
a public health problem which must be addressed is not based much on
the actual misuse of firearms in accidents, but more on the
potentiality for such misuse, generally combined with a warning
against using education -- of adults or children -- as a means to
prevent accidents. One survey noted no difference in how firearms
were stored (locked and loaded or not) related to whether the owner
had firearms instructions; "instruction in the proper handling of
firearms was not associated with whether a gun was kept loaded when
not in use." (Weil and Hemenway, 1992:3037) Unfortunately, instruction
was measured by asking about training, including military training,
which is not generally designed to address the issue of keeping
firearms away from children. In addition, the dismissal came despite
acknowledgement that the only study possibly relevant to actual misuse
found that owners of guns involved in accidental shooting deaths of
children were unlikely to have received any safety training. (Heins et
al., 1974) The study did not deal with misuse of firearms, only with
whether guns were stored in a potentially dangerous way.
Similar dismissal of firearms safety instruction is
widespread, but not studied. Wintemute dismissed education as
irrelevant to reducing gun violence primarily because accidents play
such a small role in firearm-related deaths, but they nonetheless
lobby for other changes in gun regulations which are also aimed
primarily at accidents, such as a call for loaded indicators and
safety devices. (Wintemute, 1987) And a massive book on reducing
violence, sponsored by the CDC, espoused many proposed cures for
accidental shootings, but expressed concern about experimenting with
education in firearms safety: "An important research question is
whether the safety benefits of such courses are outweighed by their
ability to promote an interest in firearms, an interest which
increases the number of firearms in circulation and the potential for
both intentional and unintentional injuries." (National Committee for
Injury Prevention and Control, 1989:266) The AAP dismissed education
asserting: "No published research confirms effectiveness of gun safety
training for adolescents. Most preventive gun safety education is
directed at hunters and marksmen, but hunting and target-shooting
accidents are a small part of the adolescent firearm problem" (AAP
Committee on Adolescence, 1992:21). The AAP went on to warn that
because "gun safety education programs are also widely available and
heavily promoted, the Academy cautions educators to choose educational
programs and approaches carefully, avoiding those that might
inadvertently encourage or promote the access of youth to firearms."
And the CDC has opined that "educational interventions...are often
expensive and rarely result in lasting behavioral change. Some
educational interventions...may actually increase the probability of
injury." (Kellermann et al., 1991:19) The American Youth Work Center
agreed with Kellermann and his colleagues, complaining that "many
youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and the American
Camping Association flat out promote marksmanship and gun ownership in
households with children. This organizationally induced enthusiasm by
children for guns adds up to a lot of dead Boy Scouts and unhappy
campers." (Treanor and Bijlefeld, 1989)
Clearly, more study should be done on the impact of firearms
safety instruction, but public health professionals tend to dismiss it
without study while espousing numerous other proposals with even less
study. There is some indication of a relation of firearms safety
instruction to reduced accidents, particularly with regard to hunting
accidents (Kleck, 1991:ch. 6) -- and data from the Hunter Education
Association (1991) indicates that only about one-third of hunting
accidents involve shooters who are hunter education course graduates,
even though the numbers of educated hunters, and state laws requiring
instruction for hunters, would suggest that the vast majority of
hunters have such instruction.
And more study has to be done on the relationship of potential
access to firearms, due to storage and other practices, and any actual
harm. Most public health research on children's actual access to
firearms notes that the access exists and assumes that involves a
serious hazard, even while acknowledging that the access is among low
risk youth. (Callahan and Rivara, 1992) An even more ludicrous study
by CDC researchers demonstrated that firearms were often in the homes
of so-called "latchkey children" (with no parent at home after
school), and that this posed a problem because the "mix of guns in the
home and unsupervised children can be deadly." (Lee and Sacks, 1990)
There was no indication that it actually was deadly. There was no
effort to find whether latchkey children were disproportionately
involved in gun-related accidents. There was no effort even to
determine whether an increasing number of latchkey children was
associated with an increase in firearms-related accidental (or other)
deaths. (Although, of course, with gun-related accidents down, the
relationship would be suggestive more if the number of latchkey
children were declining over the past 15 years.)
Since accidents play such a small role in firearm-related
deaths both overall and among children, the distortions regarding
actual accidental shootings are relatively minor, with rhetorical
statements of accurate data more common. It may be asserted, for
example, that a certain percentage of gun-related accidents occurred
in various locations (home or part of home, for example), or involving
the victim shooting himself versus being shot by another, or whether
the gun was in the victim's home or that of someone else, and the
relationship of shooter and victim. (Center to Prevent Handgun
Violence, 1991a) A few distortions do make their way into the
literature, such as the AAP's assertion that majority of accidental
deaths of "children" 0-19 involve boys under 15 (AAP Committee on
Injury and Poison Prevention, 1992) -- a statement which would be
accurate if younger girls were included. (NCHS, 1991:300)
But the most common potentially misleading statement is to
state that firearms represent the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth
leading cause of accidental death among a particular age group. As
Kleck has repeatedly pointed out, while the statement may be true, the
actual numbers -- particularly estimates for handguns as a portion of
the firearm-related accidental deaths -- are fairly small, and
declining. And the actual accidents may be still fewer, with some
child-abuse homicides disguised as firearm-related accidents. The
three leading causes of accidental deaths among children -- motor
vehicles, drowning, and fires -- are far ahead of firearms. (Kleck,
1991; U.S. House of Representatives, 1989:50-69; NSC, 1991:22)
Occasionally, some distortion is made by changing the statement that
firearms are the nth leading cause of accidental deaths, or were in
some recent year, but that they have "become" the nth leading cause --
a ranking which has been stable.
Studies of Children's Firearm-Related Accidents
There have been a few studies of actual misuse of firearms in
accidents. Most of the information is accurate so far as it goes,
merely indicating that accidents often occur where firearms are apt to
be stored, frequently occur in the home of the victim, sometimes
involve friends and other family members, and the like. The studies
provide basis for rhetorical use, especially since one of the studies
was performed by HCI's Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, and another
was produced by gun-ban advocates. (Wintemute et al., 1987) Perhaps
the only interesting point is that revolvers were disproportionately
involved, relative to probable ownership at the time, in children's
firearms accidents -- suggesting one of the benefits of the apparent
shift in handguns from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols. (Howe,
One major study was performed by the General Accounting Office
(GAO, 1991), at the request and with the guidance of Senator Howard
Metzenbaum, to evaluate whether two proposed modifications of firearms
would help to save children's lives. The premise was that, while 84%
of the deaths involved violations of NRA safety guidelines, 31%
involved shootings where either a loaded indicator or a passive safety
device would have prevented the shooting.
There are a number of problems with the GAO report. First,
their sample was unrepresentatively young. Nationally, less than 3.5%
of accidents involve persons under the age of five; the GAO sample had
8% in that age group. Nationally, about 40% of firearms-related
accidents involve victims at least 31 years of age; in the GAO sample,
only 16% were over the age of 30. Nationally, less than one-third of
accidents kill persons under voting age; over half of the GAO sample
was too young to vote. In the one area where there is clear knowledge
about gun-related accidents, the GAO sample was unrepresentative.
Under the circumstances, there can be little confidence regarding
estimates from such a sample.
And, since the sample overrepresented urban accidents, the 70%
handgun involvement is not evidence that such is the overall
involvement, although it has been relied upon (Weil and Hemenway,
1992), as if it were definitive: "The federal government reports that
handguns are involved in 70 percent of unintentional firearm deaths."
(Goldfarb, 1992) National data are unavailable, although where a
firearm type is identified, handguns are involved less than half the
time. As has been noted, however, if one is assessing the risks of
loaded guns, the issue would be, relative to being kept loaded, what
percentage of firearm accidents involve handguns? And the suggestive
data are that handguns, relative to loaded accessibility, are
disproportionately less involved in accidental fatalities than long
guns. (Kleck, 1991:280-281)
There were additional problems with their recommendations,
although they have been popular with the CDC and its grantees. The
recommendation that guns all have loaded indicators -- some device for
determining whether the firearm is loaded -- is worthless without some
education about what the indicator is and what it means. Thus, the
denounced education remains essential. The GAO also noted that the
loaded indicator, to be effective, would have to be put onto all
firearms, noting that the false assumption that the device was on the
gun could mislead and increase carelessness. For a number of reasons,
gun owners would not cooperate by having their firearms retrofitted
with such devices. And, unlike consumer products with rather short
life spans, where safety improvements can be imposed prospectively
with some hope of rapidly covering most of the items owned by
consumers, firearms last for decades.
Another problem with the idea is that the education associated
with loaded indicators would run counter to proper safety instruction.
Under NRA guidelines, a firearm is presumed loaded until proven
otherwise. The GAO approach would teach that, if a loaded indicator
indicated that a firearm were empty, one could treat it as if it were
unloaded. Such education would fly in the face of rational education.
To gun owners, firearms have a variety of loaded indicators: open
cylinder, open bolt, etc.
The other proposal was estimated to cover a smaller portion --
8% compared to 23% for loaded indicators -- by requiring passive
safety devices, devices which automatically renders the firearm
inoperable until disengaged, as opposed to safeties which have to be
deliberately engaged. The most common example is the grip safety,
where the hand gripping the gun releases the safety. The GAO's
assumption was that passive safeties would save the lives of children
too young to strongly grasp the gun, although too high a percentage of
their sample involved persons that young.
Again, the GAO acknowledged that the device should be
universal to be effective, and might be counterproductive if absent on
large numbers of firearms, since that would encourage false confidence
of safety. In general, firearms owners do not wish passive safety
devices. In public addresses, Stephen Teret often uses as an example
of a passive safety on a revolver a model of Smith & Wesson. The
marketing history of that revolver tells something of the likely
success of such a device. In response to the fact that gun owners
were undoing the safety, Smith & Wesson modified the gun so that
inserting a pin would allow the safety to be permanently disengaged.
Then, further responding to market pressures, the grip or backstrap
safety disappeared altogether. Although Teret asserts the revolver
was never involved in an accident, some firearms experts have asserted
that the way children play dangerously with revolvers (with thumbs
inside the trigger guard and the rest of their hands at the back of
the gun with muzzle point toward the child), they do have strength to
disengage the safety.
In any event, gun owners generally decide which safety devices
they want or do not want, and if a firearm comes with unwanted
safeties, they are permanently disengaged, either with amateur or
professional gunsmithing, or jerry-rigging. The most common passive
safety, the grip safety, can be easily permanently disengaged even by
the mechanically incompetent by using a variety of household tapes.
Gun owners would be unlikely to allow guns to be retrofitted with
unwanted safeties. Most owners of classic automobiles have not had
them retrofitted with seatbelts, and, of course, the permanent buzzer
warning of unengaged seatbelts was changed because so many drivers
were disengaging the device. Similarly, while childproof medicine
bottles enhance safety, many adults overcome the device for ease of
use. And the risk is that parents taught that guns have passive
safeties could endanger children by not being cognizant that most guns
do not, and will not, have such safeties. As a practical matter, most
regulations of consumer products affect the manufacture and sale; the
consumer is generally free to alter products for personal use at will,
as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has felt
compelled to point out. (Breslin, 1992)
The only review of firearm-related accidents giving some care
to statistics, and without an anti- or pro-gun bias, suggests that
accidents, like homicides, are not something threatening all groups in
society, or even all gun owners, equally. Accidents, particularly
among the older "children" popular with anti-gun activists like HCI
and the CDC, disproportionately affect persons who are reckless, abuse
alcohol and drugs, engage in violent behavior, and the like. And,
despite lower levels of gun ownership, such accidents
disproportionately involve young black, rather than young white,
males, and persons less likely to get pediatric care for reasons of
age and social class than safer individuals. (Kleck, 1991:ch. 7)
Popular Assertions Regarding Accidental and Total Children's Gun
Injuries and Deaths
The leading cause of death in both black and white teenage
boys in America is gunshot wounds. (Koop and Lundberg, 1992) The
statement is true for blacks, due to their high and increasing
homicide rate. For whites, the statement is not true, even assuming
one is adding suicides, accidents, and homicides with guns.
Unintentional injuries rank number one, with enough involving motor
vehicles alone for motor vehicles to rank first even if types of
accidents are disaggregated. (NSC, 1991; Hammett et al., 1992:18)
For each child killed in a firearm-related incident, another
100 are seriously injured. (Vinokur, 1992) The more common -- and
more likely accurate figure -- is about ten injuries for each death,
with the ratio varying based upon whether the incident was a suicide
attempt, an assault, or an accident. The inaccurate figure is based
upon an unrepresentative sample of ten police departments by the GAO
(1991), in a study which found 5 deaths and over 500 injuries. Even
if the figure were true for accidents, they represent a minority of
gun-related deaths, and the 100 could not be applied to gun-related
assaults or suicide attempts, the apparent means for achieving the
absurd statement: "In the past decade, more than 138,000 Americans
were shot just by children under the age of 6." (Hartford Courant,
July 5, 1992)
One child is killed accidentally with a handgun every day,
according to the National Safety Council. Actually, it is according
to HCI. The NSC reports about 230-250 accidental firearm-related
deaths among children annually, which would work out to 4-5 per week.
But that included rifles and shotguns, and it includes some homicides,
most likely child abuse by parents, guardians, and their close
acquaintances, disguised as accidents. (Kleck, 1991:ch.7) The actual
figure is unknown but probably between 100 and 200, with "every other
day" a more accurate rhetorical way to put the matter. The figure is
declining, and would have been an understatement as applied to all
firearms when HCI was first making the assertions -- with regard to
handguns alone -- in the mid-1970s.
A study of accidental shooting of children 16 and under
indicated about 50% occurred in the victims' home, 38% in the home of
a relative or friend, the handguns were most often found in bedrooms,
and boys predominated as shooters and victims. (Center to Prevent
Handgun Violence, 1991a) The study by an anti-gun advocacy group
provides unsurprising data, which merely indicates that whatever size
pie exists, it may be divided up into various categories. With the
small and diminishing number of accidents, it indicates that a few gun
owners should be more careful about storing their handguns; and that
all young persons should have basic knowledge about firearm
safety/avoidance, since accidents may involve children from households
without gun owners.
There is a need for "limiting access to firearms among
children, in order to reduce unintentional injury and death....ready
access to loaded firearms in the home for children under 15 is the
chief contributing factor in unintentional shootings, with an
increasing in the use of firearms paralleling an increase in violent
deaths." (Novello, 1991) The basis for the Surgeon General's remarks
is unclear. Firearm-related accidents are declining more rapidly than
other types of accidents -- motor vehicle, other public accidents,
home accidents -- rather than increasing with increases in suicide and
homicide. The assumption that gun accidents involving children occur
with loaded firearms in the home more than with unloaded guns or
elsewhere is true but not a contribution to scientific debate.
There is one interesting facet to the argument about guns in
the home leading to firearms accidents. Overall, bicycle accidents
kill more children under the age of 15 than do firearms-related
accidents. But, whereas the arguments against firearms focus on what
occurs in the privacy of the home, where regulation might be difficult
or impossible to enforce, efforts to curb bicycle accidents would be
aimed at public activities in public places. Unlike firearms, which
are generally used by adults, children's bicycles are rarely used by
anyone but children; and regulation of them would be aimed at public
activity. Yet efforts to curb bicycle accidents among children by
banning children's bicycles are rarely, if ever, heard, even among CDC
researchers, who focus instead on the need for helmets.
Guns are the fifth leading cause of death in young children.
(Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, 1992) Other variations are
that handguns are the nth leading cause, or that handguns or firearms
are the nth leading cause of accidental death in a particular age
group. Generally, the statement is arguably true, although it could
be modified depending upon how other causes were defined (bicycles
separated from other motor vehicle, and the like). Sometimes, they
may be slightly off by one or two. In this example, "young children"
is undefined, and is only true if (a) children below the age of one
are excluded, and (b) children up to the age of 14 are included. For
"young children" aged 1-4, firearms would come in 10th place, with
about 100 deaths -- or 12th, if three different types of accidents
were separated out from the total "unintentional injuries" category;
for "young children" aged 1-9, the 230 deaths would come in 7th -- 9th
if unintentional injuries were divided up into categories counted
separated. (NSC, 1991; Hammett et al., 1992; FBI, 1992) A CDC study
(1992a) reported that firearms accidents were third after motor
vehicles and drownings among children 10-19, but then discussed the
number of accidental shootings among those 0-19, leading some in the
news media to misunderstand and report firearms third for all children
(Associated Press, June 26, 1992), whereas they are fourth among the
types of accidental deaths normally reported separately. It is
unclear whether CDC's easy to misunderstand paragraphs are supposed to
mislead the news media or merely combine so many different data sets
that the news media are accidentally misled. The problem is that a
rank-ordering might be accurate if said of all firearms but not if
said of firearms accidents, or of all firearms, but not handguns, etc.
For example, it was reported that "unintentional gunshots are the
sixth-leading cause of death for children under 14." (O'Neill, 1990)
The statement is not close to true, but could be with only a few
changes in defining age, or redefining categories -- perhaps just
making it "injury-related" so as carefully to include various
unintentional injuries as well as homicide. One of the key points, as
Kleck points out, is that, whatever the ranking, the number is small.
For the most part, "causes" ahead are far ahead.
Gun-related accidental deaths disproportionately affect youth.
(CDC, 1992a) Firearms-related accidents, like accidents from risk
taking in general (overall, accidents disproportionately affect
geriatric Americans), most affect teenagers and young adults. As an
overall rate for children 0-14, the rate of 0.5 is not much different
from the overall rate of 0.6. (NSC, 1991; U.S. Bureau of the Census,
1991:18) For young children, aged 0-9, the rate is half the national
Eleven (or 12) percent of children who die are shot to death.
The CDC study which came up with 11% (Fingerhut and Kleinman, 1989)
carefully excluded those under the age of one. Including them,
firearm-related deaths would have accounted for 4.5% of the deaths of
"children," or one-sixth of one percent of all deaths of Americans
annually. Firearm-related deaths of children 0-14 account for about
0.04% of American deaths. Of deaths in the 1-14 age group, firearms
are involved in about 5% (NCHS, 1991). Redefining children as 1-19
allows the 11% figure from 1989 to be raised to 12%.
More teenagers now die from firearms than from all natural
causes put together. Thanks to modern medicine, that is how it should
be. Persons who survive the killers of childhood -- perinatal
conditions, birth defects, sudden infant death syndrome -- should be
generally safe from natural causes until middle age. The change is
not increased violence, but decreased deaths from infectious and
parasitic diseases. And the main threat to alter that statistic,
particularly among the young adults occasionally included in the
"children" category, comes from infectious diseases, particularly the
human immunodeficiency virus. Deaths of teenagers and young adults
are tied to reckless and aggressive behavior.
The costs of treating youthful gunshot wounds is threatening
emergency rooms. In fact, the rate of injuries to persons 0-19 which
might include firearms (unintentional firearms injuries, suicide
attempts, assault/undermined) are not out of line in numbers compared
to other causes of injury, appear to total less than sports injuries,
falls, motor vehicle occupant injuries, bicycles injuries in number
and to differ from them little enough in cost as to pose no proven
excess burden. (Malek et al., 1991:1002-1003)
Suicide is a more fertile field for alleging that unfortunate
trends among youth justify restrictive gun laws. Unlike accidents,
the trend is in the wrong direction. Unlike homicide, there is less
contrary rhetoric that youth who have no trouble finding controlled
substances like heroine or cocaine will have no trouble finding
controlled firearms. Unfortunately, deception is still deemed useful
in the cause of attacking firearms.
Both nationally and among children (10-14 or 10-19; younger
children are presumed too immature willfully to take their own lives
and attribution of suicide to them is quite rare -- NCHS, 1991), the
suicide rate rose from the 1950s to the 1970s, and much if not all of
the rise was in suicide by firearm. This provides a nice trend for
saying how much worse things are getting, and that the cause is
firearms availability, particularly handgun availability. (Boyd, 1983;
AAP Committee on Adolescence, 1992) Again, changes can be reported for
a variety of time periods, age groups, and either overall or including
only firearm-related suicide. For example, the total suicide rate
rose among teenagers 15-19 about 75% between 1968 and 1987 (Fingerhut
and Kleinman, 1989), and the gun-related suicide rate between 1979
and 1988 rose 60% among younger "teens" (10-14) and 30% among the
older teenagers (while generally falling for young adults) (Fingerhut
et al., 1991). Certainly, this trend is considered relevant by HCI,
the CDC, and other anti-gun advocacy groups, which tie it to the
increase in handgun availability.
One problem with reliance upon the trends is that, as Kleck
has noted (1991:ch.6), most of the increase in gun-related suicide
occurred prior to the increase in handgun availability, most of which
occurred after the early 1970s, peaking by around 1980. The dramatic
rises in suicide were not associated with dramatic increases in
handgun availability. Trends are more convincingly associated with
other factors trending in the same direction at some reasonably
As an excuse for current interest in firearms restrictions,
the citation of trends may best be called highly misleading. For the
most part, the trends cited are over the past 3-5 decades (Center to
Prevent Handgun Violence, 1991a; U.S. House of Representatives,
1989:45) or between 1970 and 1980 (AAP Committee on Adolescence,
1992), although the AAP press release announcing their support of a
handgun ban went further, misleadingly asserting that "Adolescent
suicides are rising sharply, and most involve handguns." (AAP, 1992)
As Kleck has noted, there has been relative stability in gun
involvement in suicides of young persons for about 15 years.
(U.S. House of Representatives, 1989:64) And the rise in suicide has
not been distinctively sharp.
Another problem with crediting the suicide increase to an
American phenomenon is that the suicide trend is apparently not.
There is a reported increase in suicide among teenagers and young
adults throughout the industrialized world (CJ Europe, 1991). The
British reported a 78% increase between 1980 and 1990 in the suicide
rate for young men aged 14-24 in England and Wales, credited to the
"increase in the availability of cars" (Hawton, 1992). Although time
frames and age groups are slightly different, it would appear that the
recent rise in suicide rates among young men has been faster in gun-
restricted Britain than in the United States.
The CDC and its researchers and supporters would generally be
unaware of such statistics. While occasionally comparing American
homicide rates with those of different countries (Fingerhut and
Kleinman, 1990; AAP Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention, 1992;
Sloan et al., 1988; Ropp et al., 1992; Koop and Lundberg, 1992;
Cotton, 1992; HCI, n.d.), discussions of suicide tend to focus on the
United States. One of the few exceptions, comparing suicides in
Seattle and Vancouver -- where the overall suicide rate was higher --
concluded with the curious suggestion that a restrictive gun law could
reduce the suicide rate among one age group while having no impact on
the total suicide rate. (Sloan et al., 1990) At the very least, the
question of how one reduces a subset without reducing the set calls
out for some explanation.
Firearms and the Risk of Suicide
While the trend data are merely irrelevant to an argument for
restrictive gun laws, and the data presented are generally probably
accurate, the risk of firearms availability to suicide among children
is one which has invited some outright lies by "gun control"
advocates. Relying upon the American Association of Suicidology (a
member of the NCBH/CSGV), Dr. Katherine K. Christoffel testified on
behalf of the AAP before the House Select Committee on Children,
Youth, and Families: "Every three hours, a teenager commits suicide
with a handgun." (U.S. House of Representatives, 1989:45) It is a
figure used as well by both an offshoot of the NCBH/CSGV -- saying
"firearms" rather than "handguns" -- and HCI (Treanor and Bijlefeld,
1989:3; HCI, n.d.)
In 1988, among persons under the age of 20 there were under
1,400 suicides involving firearms of all kinds -- less than 200 with
handgun involvement reported, but most NCHS data on firearm-related
deaths do not include the type of firearm (NCHS, 1991) -- while the
AAP data would suggest 3,000 involving handguns alone. And, while it
is alleged that some gun-related suicides may be misclassified as
accidents to spare the feelings of parents, there are not enough such
occurrences to explain more unreported suicides with handguns than
suicides with firearms.
More recently, advocates of restrictive gun laws have a new
bogus figure: "teen-agers in homes with guns are 75 times more likely
to kill themselves than teen-agers living in homes without guns."
(Reeves, 1992) That particular invention had an interesting
development. In a small-scale study of suicides, attempted suicides,
and non-suicidal teenagers with psychiatric problems, firearms were
roughly twice as likely to be in the homes of the suicides as in the
homes of those western Pennsylvanians who unsuccessfully committed
suicide or those who had psychiatric problems but were non-suicidal.
(Brent et al., 1991) There was no suggestion, nor any study, of the
possible risk factor of firearms in the home of teenagers who were not
suicidal. Indeed, the ownership levels overall for the sample of
mentally disturbed teenagers was lower than would have been expected
in western Pennsylvania overall, based on the popularity of hunting in
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
frequently has an editorial, written in or out of house, accompany
major articles. In this case, three employees of the CDC authored an
editorial, asserting that "the odds that potentially suicidal
adolescents will kill themselves go up 75-fold when a gun is kept in
the home." (Rosenberg et al., 1991) There was nothing in either
article or editorial to suggest that there was any increased risk for
non-suicidal adolescents; and the suggestion that access to firearms
by suicidal teenagers should be restricted was clearly not
controversial (Blackman, 1992).
But the 75-fold or 75 times figure was sheer invention, as was
noted in unpublished portions of the letter published by JAMA
(Blackman, 1992). Instead, the lie was withdrawn in a "correction"
printed in JAMA. Unfortunately, corrections in JAMA are fairly well
hidden compared to corrections in news media like the Washington Post,
but the relevant portion read: "The second sentence of the Editorial
should have read as follows: 'In fact, the odds that potentially
suicidal adolescents will kill themselves more than double [not "go up
75-fold"] when a gun is kept in the home.'" (JAMA [April 8, 1992]
Although the CDC corrected its lie, there is no indication
that any steps have been taken to correct those misusing their figure.
Certainly, this author has seen no letters to the editor correcting
the falsehood when it appears, and in a discussion in Washingtonian
Magazine offices in July 1992, HCI denied there was any correction, so
the CDC apparently did not correct themselves to one of their most
avid readers. And the lie lives on in congressional testimony by
Senator John Chafee (1992).
Popular Statements Regarding Suicide and "Children"
The suicide rate of adolescents has tripled in the past three
decades, making it the third leading killer of teenagers. (Center to
Prevent Handgun Violence, 1991a) The trend occurred from the 1950s to
the 1970s. It is not a recent trend, indicating an "epidemic," but
the gradual increase following sharp increases from about two decades
ago. (U.S. House of Representatives, 1989:64; Kleck, 1991:ch.6)
Almost 3,200 pre-teens and adolescents take their own lives
with guns every year -- one every three hours. (Center to Prevent
Handgun Violence, 1991b) The figure is over twice the official figure
from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS, 1991). It may
be achieved either by counting all suicides, regardless of
instrumentality, or by raising the age of adolescents to 24.
Handguns account for 70 percent of all firearm suicides.
(Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1991b) There are no national data
on handgun involvement in firearm-related suicide. The study upon
which HCI's Center is relying was based on an urban sample; handguns
tend to predominate in urban areas more than in rural areas and small
Guns are the most lethal form of suicide method. (Center to
Prevent Handgun Violence, 1991b) The statement is true, although
firearms are on a par with hanging, CO exhaust, and drowning. The
statement does not contribute to the real question, which is whether
firearms are chosen because suicide was the intended result, or
suicide resulted because firearms were chosen. Evidence tends to
suggest the former, with little suggestion suicides would not occur if
there were restrictions (Kleck, 1991:ch.6) -- a view supported by the
high suicide rates in areas with far fewer firearms, including Canada,
Japan, and much of Europe.
HOMICIDE AND OTHER VIOLENT CRIME
Homicide and other violent crime has presented the best
opportunity to cite increases in firearm use as a reason to consider
restrictive gun laws -- although, as others have said: "[I]t is useful
to point out that nearly everything that leads to gun-related violence
among youths is already against the law. What is needed are not new
and more stringent gun laws but rather a concerted effort to rebuild
the social structure of inner cities." (Sheley et al., 1992:682)
Nonetheless, it is the criminal homicide trend, particularly
among young persons -- often called "children" but emphasizing persons
15-24 -- which has justified the assertion that there is an epidemic
of gun-related violence crying out for a public health solution.
(Cotton, 1992; Fulginiti, 1992; Marwick, 1992; Mason and Proctor,
1992; Callahan and Rivara, 1992)
Recent trends in homicide, particularly firearms-related
homicide, in America have been discouraging (Law Enforcement News,
1990), although the push to tie restrictive gun laws to misuse by
children began while reported trends were still moving the right
direction. And, for the most part, the real sharp increase in
homicide -- and firearms-related homicide -- occurred in the 1960s and
1970s, and went down during the early 1980s. (Baker et al., 1984:90-
91) As Kleck has noted, the homicide rate, and gun involvement in
homicide, for persons 0-19, improved somewhat in the late 1970s and
1980s, and did not begin its upwards drift until 1987 (U.S. House of
Representatives, 1989:60), by which time the anti-gun groups had
already begun to emphasize children as the reason for needing more
restrictive gun laws (Treanor and Bijlefeld, 1989:Unpaginated letter
from Constance A. Morella), and after Congress had passed legislation
calling upon the CDC to study injury-related deaths among children.
This is true even in the areas where the involvement of children has
received great publicity. Seventeen percent of homicide victims in
the District of Columbia were aged 15 and under in 1980 (personal
communication from D.C. police), and the figure for those 17 and
under fell to 6% in 1986, rising to 11% in 1991. The suspected
assailants were under 18 in about 6% of the homicides in 1986, rising
to about 20% in 1989 and 1990, and falling back to 10% for the first
half of 1991. (Johnson and Robinson, 1992)
Trends in Violent Crime and Homicide Involving Children and Firearms
Overall, the involvement of younger persons (under age 15, or
18) in violent crime was generally stable or declining from the
mid-1970s to 1987, as has been demonstrated by Gary Kleck (U.S. House
of Representatives, 1989:60-61). Since that time, there has been an
increase, coincidentally beginning almost exactly the time Congress
expressly authorized the CDC to begin addressing the issue of
injury-deaths among youths. The rise has not been across the board,
either in terms of who is apparently committing the crimes (based on
arrest record), or on the types of criminal violence. (FBI,
1992:220-229,279-289). For most crimes, the 1980s saw stability in
the arrest rates among white youth and other non-black races, except
for slight very recent increases. Overall, and particularly for
homicide, the black arrest rate rose dramatically. For all races, one
of the more shocking aspects of the arrest trends is that there is a
dramatically greater increase in arrests for homicide than for other
violent crimes. Violent crime arrest rates were fairly stable from
the late 1970s to the late 1980s, but then rose substantially, while
property offenses dropped. (Snyder, 1992) Similarly, teenage victims
in crime surveys indicate a decrease in theft but with a downward
trend in violent victimizations during the early 1980s being replaced
by a increase in violent victimizations more recently, up to levels
reported around 1979-81. (Whitaker and Bastian, 1991:3)
But clear and dramatic increases in crimes involving young
persons, especially blacks, as perpetrators and victims, have
occurred. The same trend is clear with CDC data. In order to show
dramatic increases, the CDC has to be careful to use the mid-1980s for
comparison, since the late 1970s and early 1980s will fail to show
dramatic changes, or, for some age and racial groups, any changes,
whether looking at homicide overall or at gun-related homicide.
Compared to 1979-81, only the homicide rate for infants under the age
of one has risen dramatically -- and almost none of those homicides
(roughly 3%) involve firearms. (FBI, 1992:18; Hammett et al., 1992)
For other youthful age groups (1-4, 5-9, 10-14, 15-24), the homicide
rate remained fairly stable, and for all other age groups, the
homicide rate declined during the 1980s. (Hammett et al., 1992) The
same is generally true as well for firearm-related homicides, except
among young black males up to the age of 25, and for black females
aged 10-14. For most five-year age groups, homicide was fairly
stable, declining, or rising only modestly, between 1979 and 1988.
(Fingerhut et al., 1991:7-8)
To find a clearly upward trend in homicide and gun-related
homicide, it is necessary to use the mid-1980s at a starting point and
to emphasize young black males (aged 10-24), for whom a decline in the
early 1980s was followed by a much greater increase in more recent
years. Even with recent homicide increases, the rates are generally
lower for others than around 1979-81. (Hammett et al., 1992;
Fingerhut et al., 1991) Furthermore, one has to emphasize young blacks
from central cities, since the firearm-related homicide rates for
other black teenagers are dramatically lower. (Fingerhut et al.,
The response of the CDC and other anti-gun organizations is to
blame the increase in homicide with firearms among this small subgroup
of the population on the increasing availability of firearms. Indeed,
even though the CDC's mandate was especially to be concerned with the
problem of homicide among minorities (U.S. Public Health Service,
1979; Smith et al., 1986), in studies the CDC has glossed over the
fact that all differences between groups' homicide rates are because
of different rates among different ethnic groups. (Sloan et al.,
1988) Even the upward trends, however, cannot be blamed on the
increased availability, primarily because there has been no such
increase. The percentage of households with firearms has remained
stable for decades, and the percentage of households with handguns
stabilized by the mid-1970s. In addition, the fluctuation in criminal
and other misuse of firearms has been inconsistent with any increases
in firearms per capita. And black gun ownership, and handgun
ownership levels, have been and remain lower than the levels for
whites. (Kleck, 1991) And the firearm market -- handgun and long gun
-- was flat during most of the mid-to-late-1980s. (Howe, 1992) If
firearms, or handguns, are only a risk factor for criminal homicide
victimization among young, black, inner-city males, some other
explanation might reasonably be expected for the stringent limitation
of the risk factor.
And to play up the threat to "children," it is essential to
use data from the 15-19 age group, or 15-24 age group, or a 10-19 age
group. For young children, the homicide rate and the gun-related
homicide rate no major trend, with the greatest overall rise among
infants, where firearms are not a factor. And even the upward trends
among some age/race/sex groups below the age of 15 are all with very
small numbers and rates. Indeed, the homicide rates are higher for
children below the age of five than for children aged 5-14, for whom
the homicide rates have remained around 2 per 100,000 and the
gun-related homicide rates around 1 per 100,000, although gun-related
homicide has risen faster than other homicide for those 10-14 years of
age. (Hammett et al., 1992; Fingerhut et al., 1991) Yet homicide
rarely involves firearms for those youngest of children with a
homicide rate about 8 per 100,000 (3% firearms), and almost as rarely
for the next youngest age group, at about 15% for 1-4 year olds.
On the Nature of Youthful Homicide
To support the idea that everyone should be concerned, the CDC
likes the myth that homicide threatens everyone. "It's not limited to
the inner city" (Cotton, 1992), "this onslaught of childhood violence
knows no boundaries of race, geography, or class." (Henkoff, 1992) The
statements are true only in the sense that dramatically lower levels
of violence are not the equivalent of no violence at all in small
towns, suburban, and rural areas. One might as well suggest that
private airplane crashes can threaten anyone -- but available evidence
suggests that the rate for persons on board private airplanes is
vastly higher than for those on the ground or in commercial airliners.
Homicide, and particularly escalating homicide rates, largely, are
limited to the inner city, and, indeed, to low-income minorities
within inner cities. (Fingerhut et al., 1992)
The AAP's explanation for youthful homicides is sheer
invention: "A common misperception is that teen homicides are largely
related to crime, gang activity, or premeditated assault, when in fact
the majority of shootings are committed by friends or relatives. The
most common event precipitating a shooting is an argument, often over
something later seen as trivial. Such shootings are usually
impulsive, unplanned, and instantly regretted." (AAP Committee on
Adolescence, 1992) As is common in medical writings, a source is
cited. As is also common in such writings, the source cited does not
support the statement. The source mentioned only the relationship
between homicide victim and assailant. On inquiry, an AAP
representative changed sources to a talk by the CDC's Patrick
Dr. O'Carroll responded that he had not made any study on the
subject, and if he made any such statements, they were based on his
impression rather than research; if the shootings were over "something
later seen as trivial," that is, it was later seen by Dr. O'Carroll to
be trivial. He had no explanation for the assertion concerning the
time frame for regret, and cited general impressions of Zimring for
the lack of planning for firearms-related homicides in general.
(Letter from Patrick W. O'Carroll to Paul H. Blackman, March 18, 1992)
Dr. O'Carroll's impressions are inaccurate. The shootings are
frequently gang related, sometimes planned. Compared to adult
killings, juvenile killings are more likely to involve multiple
offenders, are more apt to involve an accompanying felony, and, a fact
also noted by the CDC, are more apt to involve shootings. (Cheatwood
and Block, 1990)
While Dr. O'Carroll's impressions may be that the shootings
are instantly regretted, what has fascinated the news media and
shocked adults is that the adolescents -- generally not really
children, after all -- have no regret at all regarding the taking of a
life. The lack of remorse, the indifference regarding the use of
violence, the utter lack of respect for human life, the general
approval of using violence is what is most striking to observers of
the shocking trend in homicide. (Sheley et al., 1993; Butterfield,
1992) A study of incarcerated and non-incarcerated inner-city youth
shows this frightening trend. A large portion of the incarcerated
teenagers approve of killing to get what one wants -- and this is
true, too, of a (in some ways a more frighteningly) large minority of
the inner-city high schoolers questioned. (Sheley et al., 1993)
It has also been alleged that the victims are, by and large,
"innocent children." (Shumaker, 1992) There are clearly occasional
innocent children slain, partly because the adolescent killers are
indifferent about whether unintended victims are hit while aiming at
intended victims. But, for the most part, victimization is related to
victimizing. And the persons most apt to be the victims of crime from
teenagers are those who themselves associate with gangs and otherwise
participate in the victimization of others. (Sheley, 1992; Lauritsen
et al., 1991)
And, despite assertions by Dr. Christoffel and others that the
killers are still children -- even if they are, for the most part,
over the age of 14, and able to be tried as adults, however sad it may
be that these children lost their childhood early (Butterfield, 1992)
-- they are not children in the sense that a restrictive gun law is
apt to impress them very much. Youthful gang members may grow up to
be organized gangsters, but they were largely heartless thugs from
early on. This has been noted with regard to persons like Sam
Giancana, and it is merely more true of a larger segment of a
disadvantaged portion of society now.
Criminals, for the most part, do those things which are part
of growing to manhood at an earlier age than persons who do not become
criminals. And more of their activities seem to be tied to peer
relationships than to parental relationships. (Sheley et al., 1992;
Sheley et al., 1993; Wright and Rossi, 1986; Warr and Stafford, 1991)
But socialization into crime involving guns is different from
socialization into guns without crime. It has also been found that
socialization into legal and illegal gun use are separate and insular
phenomena. Socialization into legal gun use originates from the
family and places teenagers at no increased risk of involvement in
crime, drugs, or gangs. Socialization into illegal gun use derives
from peer influences outside the home, and increases the risk of
criminal activity. (Lizotte and Tesoriero, 1991) To use the
"politically incorrect" terminology, they lack "family values," and
they lack parental, especially fatherly, guidance. Restrictive gun
laws are unlikely to supply these. As a recent survey of inner-city
high-school students has noted:
Our findings point away from intervention at the
individual level and toward changes in the larger familial, communal,
and social situation of those most involved in gun-related
Structurally, we are experiencing the development of
an inner-city underclass unlike any in our past. In a shrinking
industrial economy, we are witnessing the disintegration of the
traditional family, increasing poverty and homelessness, diminishing
health, and deteriorating educational institutions. The desperation
of this situation is enhanced by the apparent enormity of the drug
problem and the ready availability of firearms to all. Given all
this, perhaps the surprising result is not that there is so much
violence in the inner city, but that there is so little.
These structural ingredients have fostered a culture
of violence that, unfortunately, may survive even after the structural
situation has improved. Inner-city youths know they are at risk for
violent victimization, and they are now accustomed to arming
themselves for protection (from violence in general or from violence
associated with illegal activities)....Guns have become a part of the
culture of the inner city, underclass youths. As a cultural element,
the desire to carry firearms will last long beyond the need to carry
firearms (even assuming, perhaps unrealistically, that the need itself
would be reduced by structural improvements). (Sheley et al.,
And, as Kleck has noted, those who most feel the need to
acquire, own, or carry firearms for protection, would be among the
last to allow themselves to be impacted by restrictive gun laws.
WEAPONS IN THE SCHOOLS
Among the most popular myths justifying further restrictions
on adults based on the misuse of firearms by children relates to the
schools. It has been reported that an "estimated 135,000 boys carried
guns to school daily in 1987. An estimated 270,000 others carried
guns to school at least once during the year....With an estimated
400,000 boys carrying handguns to school yearly, there is a tremendous
potential for even greater rates of death, injury, and violence."
(Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 1990:7) It has also been asked,
"How did it get to the point that, as one federal agency [the CDC]
estimates, one out of every 20 American students packs a gun in
school?" (Boss, 1992) That figure would project to about roughly
600,000 high school students carrying guns to school. (U.S. Bureau of
the Census, 1991) In highly restrictive New York City, the New York
Times has editorialized as fact that every other school child has a
gun. (New York Times, 1990) To further indicate the scope of the
alleged problem of guns in the school, data are frequently cited
showing that more and more children, in a variety of jurisdictions,
have been found with weapons in the school. (Center to Prevent
Handgun 1989) Violence, "Between 1987 and 1991, the fastest-growing
crime by juveniles was loaded gun possession, and metal detectors and
spot police checks had become routine in some inner-city high
schools." (Kramer, 1992)
How Many High School Students Carry Guns to School?
No one knows how many high-school students, male or female,
carry guns, or handguns, to school, either on a daily, monthly, or
annual basis. In 1990, the CDC began surveying high-school students
regarding weapons carrying, and that report has served as the basis
for some of the disinformation publicized. (CDC, 1991) If follow-up
surveys do not improve the question wording, little is likely to be
The CDC survey of high school students asked about carrying
weapons for protection or because it might be needed in a fight, and
then asked about the type of weapon. The time frame was the preceding
30 days, with frequency asked. Unfortunately, the question did not
ask about carrying onto school grounds, nor about carrying on the
person. Other surveys regarding carrying of firearms or handguns have
made it clear that carrying in a motor vehicle is included by
respondents as carrying for protection. (Kleck, 1991:117-119) And
most of the carrying found by the CDC was infrequent; nearly 60% who
carried did so at most three of the 30 days.
With mathematical sleight of hand, the 4.1% of students who
carried or transported firearms someplace for protection became, in
the CDC editorial, "Approximately one of 20" rather than one of 25.
The news media were left to put the guns in the schools. In addition,
as Kleck has noted (private communication), the percentage of students
carrying regularly for protection is far lower than the percentage of
adults carrying regularly for protection, despite a substantially
higher violent victimization rate for the teenagers. Only a minority
of the violent victimization occurs on school grounds (37% for those
12-15, and 17% for those 16-19). (Whitaker and Bastian, 1991:8) A more
recent survey, too, suggests that the place most threatening to
students is not apt to be school. (Sheley et al., 1992 and 1993)
How much of the carrying is on school grounds is unknown and
unknowable from the CDC survey. Assuming rationality in choosing when
to carry for protection -- and most students who carry apparently
choose to do so rarely -- the fact that only a minority of offenses
which might require weapons for protection occur at school, that
victimization in general is more common at times when students are
rarely in school, that much carrying normally is in motor vehicles
rather than on the person, and the like, Kleck has estimated that the
number carrying firearms might drop to one in 200 carrying part of the
average day, with half of that on the person, and half of that half on
school grounds. The number carrying guns on the person onto school
grounds any given day would then be about one in 800, or roughly
That figure is far lower than the 135,000 daily carriers, plus
some portion of the other 270,000 from HCI's material. Ignoring the
frequency issue, the CDC survey would suggest that 500,000 high school
students carry a firearm for protection at least once per month, but
the figure would fall by at least three-fourths by subtracting the
estimated portion carrying in motor vehicles and not onto school
As with other practices, carrying of firearms for protection
(wherever and however) was not something affecting everyone equally.
Males were more than twice as likely to carry for protection as
females, and blacks and Hispanics more likely to carry than other
whites. And, while overall only one-fifth of those who carried a
weapon identified it as a firearm, the majority of black male students
who carried a weapon identified it as a firearm.
Trends in Weapons Carrying
No one knows the trends in firearms carrying. If the HCI and
CDC surveys were both accurate and roughly comparable, then there was
a slight drop in the number carrying guns to school on any given day
or during any long period of time. HCI reported, after all, about
135,000 carrying daily, while the CDC study noted only that 36%
carried one-fifth of the time or more; unless two-thirds of that 36%
carried daily, then carrying declined. It is, of course, unclear
whether the HCI survey dealt with handguns only or all firearms; the
CDC survey covered all firearms, noting that most were handguns.
Additionally, the CDC survey between 1990 and 1991 suggests a
drop in handgun carrying, but a rise in carrying other weapons. (CDC,
1992d; Rosenberg, 1992b). The 1990 survey indicated about 20%
carrying a weapon of some kind during the preceding 30 days, and 4%
carrying a firearm, with the comment that "[m]ost students who
reported carrying firearms carried handguns." (CDC, 1991) More recent
testimony indicated 26% carrying a weapon, but "[a]mong students who
carried a weapon, 11% most often carried a handgun." That would
project to about 2.5% handgun carrying, compared to 4% gun carrying.
But neither the published report nor the testimony presented data in
the same way as the 1991 report. And, while overall carrying of a
weapon was up, for handguns, the CDC goal of a 20% reduction in weapon
carrying by the year 2000 (Rosenberg and Mercy, 1991:9) was met in
The way the CDC chose to determine the amount of weapons
carrying is based on estimating the number of episodes per month per
100 students, so that more frequent carrying by the same student would
raise the ratio, and a reduction in the amount of carrying would
achieved most easily by reducing the frequency of carrying by those
who carry rather than a reduction in the percentage of students who
carry weapons for protection at all. However, the estimated number of
instances per student assumes that a reported "six or more" equals
six. The result is certainly an underestimate, but it may still be
useful for establishing trends -- except that neither a massive
reduction nor a massive increase in the number of days the most active
carriers carried would be noticeable. Unfortunately, overall carrying
went from a reported 71 episodes per 100 students in 1990 to 107
episodes per 100 students in 1991. Perhaps to make its goal for the
year 2000 more reachable and its efforts more impressive, the CDC
seems to be taking the 1992 figure as that which is to be reduced by
20%, to 86 (CDC, 1992d:762), although one might have thought, based on
the original determination that the baseline would be set in 1991, at
which time it was reported to be 71, and as noted in 1991 (CDC,
1991:683): "To achieve the year 2000 objective, this incidence rate
must be reduced to 57 episodes per 100 students per month." And the
original goal said the baseline data would be available in 1991, not
that it would be based on a 1991 survey. (U.S. Public Health Service,
1991:101) It is unclear what other Year 2000 goals will be revised to
make the CDC's goals achievable and its efforts more impressive
looking. At any rate, the only pretense at a similar survey over time
suggests that handgun carrying dropped between 1990 and 1991, despite
rhetorical flourishes on how today's children are switching from fists
to guns; it appears the switch may be to knives.
The statement that "loaded gun possession" was the fastest
growing juvenile crime between 1987 and 1991 might possibly be true in
New York City (Kramer, 1992), but it is unlikely to be true, since
weapons arrests between 1987 and 1991 rose less than those for
homicide for males and less than for robbery, assault, and
motor-vehicle theft for females. (FBI, 1992:220) FBI data does not
even identify which of the carrying offenses involve firearms,
however, much less whether the firearm was loaded; most public
firearms possession by juveniles would be unlawful regardless of
whether the gun were loaded.
Another issue with trends, of course, relates to time frame
and enforcement. It is undoubtedly true that more and more high
schools are using more metal detectors, and searching more students,
belongings, and lockers. Should increased searching result in
increasing arrests or seizures, it would not indicate an increase in
carrying so much as an increase in enforcement. There was, for
example, a dramatic increase (from zero) in the number of explosive
devices found in aircraft and at airports once airport screening was
established (BJS, 1984:410) -- which did not necessarily mean more
explosives were being carried, only that more were being found.
A further problem is the time frame, and the relevance of
protection as a reason for carrying. Decades ago, carrying firearms
onto school grounds was common, since rifle competition was a normal
scholastic sporting activity. Similarly, while the CDC survey found
that 11% carried knives or razors for protection some of the time, the
author cannot remember knowing any male suburban junior high or high
school students in the 1950s who did not carry a knife to school
regularly. Absent protection as the expressed reason, it is possible
that, long term, the carrying of what would now be considered a weapon
is down, simply because it is prohibited now and the ban has some
At the present time, it is impossible to know the trends on
carrying to school, and unless the CDC survey specifies school
grounds, trends will not soon be known. Trends on arrests or
seizures, by school, police, etc., merely indicate trends in
enforcement, which may or may not reflect trends in actual behavior by
teenagers. And, of course, there are no data on carrying to school by
actual children, in the common pediatric sense, since the CDC survey
of 14-17 year olds, and the HCI survey report, dealt with high school
students, most of whom are 15 and over.
To the extent carrying for protection may possibly be
increasing, it is not clear how offensive it should be viewed or the
degree to which laws against it ought to be enforced. It appears to
predominate among blacks, who are much more apt to be victimized by
violence and much less likely to live in areas with effective police
protection. It seems to be universally agreed that there are ways for
students to evade even metal detectors to get knives, razors, and guns
into school, indicating that students needing some form of protection
are not likely to be adequately protected even by those extreme
measures. Finally, in terms of policy recommendations, it bears
repeating that all of the activities attacked by the CDC, HCI, and the
media in terms of "children" possessing, carrying, and using guns and
other weapons are already unlawful.
Popular Assertions Regarding Guns in the School
There has been a dramatic rise in weapons incidents in our
nation's schools, hitting cities of every size and in every region of
the country. (Biden, 1992) Usually, the evidence is merely
rhetorical, but Sen. Joseph Biden did obtain an estimate on the rise
in the numbers of weapons seized in big cities between 1989 and 1992,
with changes from declines (Minneapolis, Washington, D.C.) to
quadrupling (Indianapolis). Unfortunately, the numbers only tell
about increases in seizures, with no information as to whether that
reflects more carrying of weapons (or the kinds of weapons) or
increases in enforcement. The statement does not indicate any early
efficacy for the Gun Free School Zone Act of 1990. On the other hand,
recent testimony suggests there may have been a decline between l990
and 1991 in protective firearm carrying by high school age students
(CDC, 1992d), in which case the Act may be working but the rhetoric on
dramatic rises may be flawed or limited to the carrying of weapons
other than firearms.
The guns children use are no longer cheap "Saturday Night
Specials" but powerful 9-mm. semi-automatics, machine pistols, and
military assault rifles. (New York Times, 1990) As with all shooters,
there was a change in the 1980s from revolvers accounting for about
three-fourths of new guns to semi-automatics accounting for about 70%
of new guns. (Howe, 1992) Similar trends, lagging behind
manufacturing, of course, are noted in firearms seized. Just as there
was never evidence children preferred so-called "Saturday Night
Specials," there is no evidence they are changing. Most weapons
seized from school children are knives. (Stephens, 1992) Although the
testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary was unclear, a
Chicago police officer was indicating that 9-mm. pistols accounted
either for about 1% or about 10% of handguns seized (Byrne, 1992);
they currently comprise about 20% of the new manufacture of
handguns. (Howe, 1992) Assertions that police are "outgunned" by
juveniles and that "kids are coming up with Uzis and other
high-powered weapons" (Newark Star-Ledger, February 24, 1992, p. 8)
are simply unfounded invention by imaginative police department
REVIEWING ANTI-GUN POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
Most of the academic and news-media discussion of children and
firearms include a number of policy recommendations. To both their
credit and discredit, many of the policy recommendations by the CDC
and public health professionals have never been considered extensively
by legislative bodies or advocacy groups. It is to their credit since
it means they do not have to defy extensive research on ordinary "gun
control" proposals (Kleck, 1991). It is to their discredit since many
of the proposals involve an appalling ignorance of firearms,
ballistics, and the realities of what might be acceptable to persons
wanting firearms for sport or protection. Rhetorically, however, the
most commonly proposed policy is adoption of the Brady Bill, a
one-week waiting period on dealer transfers of handguns during which
time local police would have the option of running a background check
on the person identified as the prospective purchaser (Prothrow-Stith,
1991; NSC, 1990). Indeed, noting the dramatic increase in juvenile
involvement in trauma, columnist Jack Anderson denounced Congress's
failure in 1992 to enact "the best trauma care legislation ever
invented. It's called the Brady bill...." (Washington Post, September
7, 1992) The second most common proposal appears to be a ban on
so-called "assault weapons" (AAP, 1992).
The Brady Bill
The Brady Bill, as generally proposed, would impose a one-week
delay on the transfer of a handgun by a federally-licensed firearms
dealer unless the transfer was occurring in a state which already had
a wait of at least that long or already had a background check on
prospective handgun buyers. The background check envisioned was a
fairly short one, most likely involving telephone calls to determine
whether there were warrants outstanding, or whether and what sort of
criminal record the prospective buyer had. Monetary and time
constraints would have ruled out extensive background checks of where
a person actually lived or how valid his driver's license (or other
form of identification) was.
The relevance to the general public would be rather limited.
Over 70% of the population lives in a state which is exempt from the
terms of the Brady Bill either because of its own waiting period or
its background check (and a number of other states with substantial
numbers of pro-gun legislators would adopt an "instant background
check" system, where most firearm transfers are delayed for less than
ten minutes, were the Brady Bill to be adopted). Regardless of state
laws, only about 16% of felons acquired their handguns by purchase
from a licensed dealer (either directly or through a so-called "straw
man" sale where a qualified buyer makes the purchase) -- and the
percentage drops to 7% for repeat handgun abusers (Wright and Rossi,
1986). With only 10% of violent crime involving handguns (Rand,
1990), the initial aim of the Brady Bill was thus at about 0.2% of
violent crime (assuming most is committed by the repeat offenders).
But federal law bars the sale of handguns by licensed dealers
to persons under the age of 21, making the Brady Bill irrelevant to
the issue of children and firearms, even with a fairly broad
definition of "children." And purchases by qualified adults for
children would either constitute a proscribed "straw man" sale (if the
dealer knew for whom the firearm was being purchased) or remain
unaffected, since the adult transfer would not be a dealer transfer
and would thus not be covered by the Brady Bill. The Brady Bill is
clearly irrelevant to the issue of children and firearms.
Since only a fraction of a percent of violent crime involves
the use of military style semi-automatic firearms generally called
"assault weapons" (Kleck, 1991:ch.3; Kleck, 1992; Morgan and Kopel,
1991), different definitions of "assault weapon" would only vary the
size of the fraction of a percentage. It is unclear what percentage
of that fraction involves children, but it is probably small,
particularly with regard to the long guns designated as "assault
weapons," since they are fairly expensive and difficult to conceal.
Rhetorical references, whether by the news media, the CDC, the AMA, or
police departments, to children using Uzis and other "assault weapons"
are largely imagined. Even HCI blames rifles on only 2% of
gun-related violence in the schools. (Center to Prevent Handgun
Violence, 1990:6) As with non-passengers being killed by private
planes, while it is not inconceivable that some children misuse
so-called "assault weapons," it is not a common occurrence.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to cite references for what does not
happen, and no way to limit free-flowing rhetoric from police
Redesign Guns with More Safety Devices
As noted above, among other problems with redesign is that
redesigning firearms without unacceptable retrofitting could increase
accidents by diminishing normal precautions. Even the leader of the
AAP effort to restrict handguns recognizes that "the net result of
marketing a 'safer gun' could be to increase household arsenals and
decrease vigilance about firearm safety, because people might have the
impression that they now own 'safe'guns." (Christoffel, 1991:301) In
addition, the improvement sought is minimal. The most significant
misuse of firearms -- by children or adults -- involve intentional
misuse in suicide or homicide. As the AAP has noted, "Modifications
in gun design are unlikely to reduce injury, since those at greatest
risk are preteen and teenage boys, both of whom possess adult
abilities to circumvent gun safety features." (AAP Committee on
Develop and Promote Less Lethal Means for Protection, and Less Lethal
One risk with less lethal means for protection is the
political one: when an item is produced which could be misused,
someone is apt to seek to ban it on the grounds that it has or will be
misused. And newer technology is harder to defend politically. That
which is owned by virtually no one has few persons personally
threatened by restrictive legislation. Constitutional arguments
regarding the right to own commonly owned "arms" do not apply to those
which are not commonly owned. And if it is not an actual firearm,
protective public interest groups are apt to be weaker than when the
target is a real firearm.
Hence, "ballistic knives" were banned after Congressman Mario
Biaggi was shown an advertisement for one. "Stun guns" and taser guns
have been sharply restricted on the grounds they could be used to
commit robberies and assaults, even though most of the actual misuse
reported in the news media have been misuses by law enforcement
officials who are exempt from state and local restrictions -- although
there has also been some suggestion that they are used in child abuse.
(Frechette and Rimsza, 1992) The "exploding bullets" used by John
Hinckley in his assassination attempt (which were promptly removed
from the civilian market), were developed to increase stopping power
while reducing penetration and likely lethality. And the ammunition
used in so-called "assault weapon" rifles is generally less powerful
than ordinary big-game hunting ammunition, and, indeed, was designed
for military purposes to wound more than to kill (Fackler et al.,
1990) -- a dead soldier reduces enemy forces by one; a wounded soldier
adds to the reduction of enemy forces those needed to retrieve and
care for the wounded soldier. In 1992, the Maryland legislature
considered, and the Florida legislature enacted, legislation banning
incendiary shotgun ammunition, which amounted to a rather expensive
firework, but with a much shorter range of risk than ordinary shot or
slugs. The imaginative argument was that it would be used against law
enforcement officers and burn their clothes while penetrating their
bodies. It was not reported that it had ever been used in a crime.
And, of course, handguns are generally less lethal than long guns, yet
are the primary target for the CDC, AAP, and HCI. And, among
handguns, the lower caliber and shorter-barreled -- and hence less
lethal -- so-called "Saturday Night Special" has long been singled
Less lethal weaponry may remain lethal. (Crime Victims
Digest, 1992a) With liability suits common for any product which
misperforms (such suits have occasionally been brought against
products for doing exactly what they were designed to do), such
lethality could result in lawsuits threatening the business life of
any such manufacturer of less lethal weaponry.
Nonetheless, less lethal ammunition is apt to be produced.
(Crime Victims Digest, 1992b) Its effectiveness and popularity -- and
availability to others than the law enforcement community -- is open
to question. If available, its popularity with gun owners interested
in the protective benefits of firearms has yet to be determined. Such
ammunition would not, of course, have any impact on criminal misuse of
firearms -- it is the firearm itself, not the ammunition, which
enhances cooperation with robbers and assailants. Nor, in all
likelihood, would criminal homicide be reduced. Criminals would
prefer the traditional ammunition which would still have to be
available for sporting purposes, and new ammunition would not affect
the will to kill which is all too apparent in shootings by young
criminals. (Webster et al., 1992a) And less lethal ammunition might
well be fatal to small children. There would be the concern, at
least, that calling ammunition less lethal or non-lethal could
encourage more careless storage of a loaded firearm than might occur
if parents and guardians knew that ammunition were lethal.
The development of less lethal weaponry will continue because,
although ideal non-lethal devices do not exist, police will continue
to experiment with them to reduce their liability. (Meyer, 1992)
Pediatric Counselling of Parents Against Firearms
Pediatricians were called upon by the AAP and the CDC to
counsel the parents of patients to keep their guns safely away from
the children, carefully locked up, or, better still, to remove all
firearms from the home. They were to do this by emphasizing the
cost-ineffectiveness of keeping guns for protection, noting the
mythological ratios of protective use to destructive gun misuse in the
home. (AAP Committee on Adolescence, 1992; Webster et al., 1992b;
Rosenberg et al., 1991)
Aside from the fact that pediatricians were being called upon
to tell lies about the ineffectiveness of firearms (Kleck, 1991), the
policy recommendation is apt to fail for a number of reasons. First,
as has been noted, most of the gun-related violence is not done by
pediatric patients, but by persons older than those patients and not
apt to avail themselves extensively of pediatric or other medical care
-- except in emergency rooms, where their reception to counseling has
not been noteworthy. (D. Simon, 1992; Smith et al., 1992)
Second, neither gun owners nor non-gun owners are apt to turn
to pediatricians or other medical personnel as a source of information
on firearms and firearms safety. Non-gun owners might turn to law
enforcement personnel, and gun owners to gun organizations. But gun
owners are not even likely to respond as the pediatric profession
would like to pediatric warnings about the hazards of gun ownership
even if the gun owners believed the pediatricians. (Webster et al.,
Third, pediatricians do not feel comfortable counselling about
guns, and the more apt their patients are to own guns, the more likely
the pediatricians are as well. Where there is the greatest
opportunity for anti-gun counselling, pediatricians are most apt to be
pro-gun. (Webster et al., 1992b)
Tax Firearms and Ammunition to Fund Trauma Centers
The idea is that gunshot wounds by uninsured victims are part
of the reason trauma centers have monetary problems, so gun buyers
should pay. (Skolnick, 1992) In general, gunshot wounds account for
10-33% of patients in urban trauma centers, and are normally far
outnumbered by motor vehicle-related injuries. Taxing motor vehicles
has not similarly been proposed, even though a substantial portion of
motor vehicle injury victims would involve accidents caused by persons
who buy motor vehicles and gasoline at retail and would pay any taxes.
Sometimes called a proposed "user fee" for firearms and
ammunition buyers, it is misdirected -- as is seen partly from the
very fact that only a minority of gunshot wound victims are covered by
medical insurance or able to pay the bills themselves. Retail
purchasers of firearms are almost never the misusers of firearms which
lead to penetrating trauma requiring emergency-room or trauma center
treatment. Even accidents disproportionately involve the
irresponsible and less affluent members of society (Kleck, 1991),
whose medical coverage is apt to be minimal. Virtually all of the tax
would be paid by those not requiring the service; virtually all of the
service would be required by those who would not be paying the tax.
The tax has also been praised as a way to gradually ban
firearms out of existence. Says Dr. Christoffel: "the taxation of
manufacturers and purchasers was a part of a pattern of government
regulation that moved Japan over a several hundred-year period from
being the world's leading purveyor of firearms to being a virtually
firearm-free society." (Colan, 1992) Obviously, such an argument
would not appeal to gun owners opposed to a ban on firearms. It is
also interesting that Dr. Christoffel, who assumes the Founding
Fathers did not envision a society where children would be as
vulnerable to firearms violence as today (U.S. House of
Representatives, 1989:40) praises the Japanese system, which was
admittedly designed to preserve the anti-democratic despotic power of
the Samarai, and to prevent the loss of such power to the peasants.
(Christoffel, 1992) Dr. Christoffel and the Founding Fathers
apparently represent dissimilar philosopies of government.
Require Handguns, or all Firearms, to be Stored Safely
Although HCI originally proposed this as a means to limit
accidents, they seem to have suggested to some reporters that the
reason is to prevent criminal misuse by teenagers. Among the best
arguments in favor of the legislation is that, properly limited in
details of how firearms must be stored in the home, the proposal
amounts to little more than a call for an item-specific criminal
negligence law. As such, however, the measure is also largely
With specifics, the legislation might arbitrarily force a
particular method of storage upon firearms owners, many of whom might
generally have rather more effective methods. Indeed, because
CDC-type legislators have little knowledge of firearms, their
proposals could promote potentially risky forms of storage. A locked
safe is more expensive and effective than a trigger lock, the
installation of which on a loaded firearm is a safety hazard.
As with most proposals, it is not really aimed at those
involved in large portions of firearms misuse by "children," since
such proposals are generally directed at those younger than the group
now intentionally misusing firearms. Aside from penalizing parents
for the criminal actions of their children, or for accidents
physically or psychologically devastating their own children, little
is apt to be gained. The legislation is probably promoted largely to
score legislative points for lobbies counting legislative victories
and defeats, and to make the ownership of firearms gradually appear to
be more troublesome than it is worth. The legislation is openly
promoted more as an effort to remind gun owners of safe storage
practices than in the hopes of enforcement of criminal provisions.
Establish "Gun Free School Zones"
On its face, the proposal is superfluous. The federal
government has already outlawed carrying firearms (with various
exceptions) on or near school grounds. For the most part, state law
already exists, and there have been no studies indicating a need to
enhance the penalties for doing that which is unlawful if it is done
near or on school grounds.
An educational risk is imposing criminal sanctions on matters
which might more properly have been dealt by normal school
administrative sanctions. A constitutional risk is posed by the issue
of due process, particularly notice. After all, "gun" -- and, for
that matter, "drug" -- "-free school zones" are usually announced with
a large sign near the school property, with small print (if any)
announcing the zone applies to within 1,000 feet of the school
grounds. Nearby, there is normally a sign, with a different purpose,
misleadingly announcing "end school zone." School attendance
requirements, combined with the threat of metal detectors to find
weapons, and an enhanced sentence for having a gun (or drugs) should,
at least, raise constitutional concerns.
CDC-commended ways to reduce firearms on school grounds
"include random locker searches, walk-throughs with metal detectors,
and policies requiring that students use only clear plastic or mesh
bookbags so that weapons cannot be readily hidden." (CDC 1992c:215)
The use of metal detectors raises concerns on its own. While the
courts are likely to allow sharp restrictions on rights in order to
enforce gun laws and drug laws, the existing Supreme Court case on
searching students (New Jersey v. T.L.O., 105 S.Ct. 733 )
required individualized suspicion -- something lacking with metal
detectors. The airport security system assumes a voluntary waiver not
really present when education is obligatory. And the systems are
renowned for "false positives" -- keys, coins, calculators, three-ring
binders, etc. -- while evasion is believed commonplace, and many
knives and razor blades can easily escape most detectors' notice
(since they're set to avoid too many false positives). The equipment
is also expensive, and devising a system to force all entrants into a
school to go through screening programs could invite locked doors and
windows in conflict with fire codes. Privacy concerns are also
involved in locker searches and requiring that that which is carried
be visible to all, along with questions regarding the extent to which
purses are exempt and other carriers are not.
The misuse aimed at is generally sufficiently more serious
that criminals would be unlikely to be deterred by the enhanced
sentence. It is possible that some students needing protection will
become more fearful of their government than of the young criminals
they fear, and conform to such laws. It is unclear to what extent
that is desirable, or whether it will increase or diminish the amount
of violence or the degree of innocence of those swept up in it.
Sharply Restrict or Prohibit Adult Access to Firearms
Constitutionally, the Supreme Court has made it clear that
adult rights cannot be reduced to that which is suitable for children.
(Sable Communications of California, Inc. v. Federal Communications
Commission, 109 S.Ct. 2829 ) Laying constitutional issues aside,
it is not normal legislative practice to limit adult access to that
which is suitable for children, be it athletic equipment, alcohol and
tobacco products, cleaning equipment, motor vehicles, or
pharmaceutical products. Again, it is interesting to note that there
is virtually no call for a ban on children's bicycles -- which would
be easy to enforce since no violation except in public would involve a
threat to child safety -- even though there are more fatal bicycle
than firearms accidents among children (Baker and Waller, 1989), and
children's bicycles are not used by adults, whereas firearms are
intended primarily for adults. Similarly, there is no call for bans
on swimming pools, involved in more accidental fatalities than with
children (Kates, 1990:50-51), nor for sports in general, which are
associated with more injuries and higher medical costs (Malek et al.,
For a number of reasons, excessive violence has long been
endemic in the United States, with a very high rate of homicide, gun-
and non-gun related violent crime, albeit with a mid-level rate of
suicide. Efforts to tie that general violence to firearms
availability and the lack of restrictive gun laws have failed (Wright
et al., 1983; Kleck, 1991), and current efforts are more tangential
ones claiming a current "epidemic" of violence requires major new
There is no "epidemic" in general affecting gun owners or most
citizens in the United States. Trends on homicide, suicide, and
firearms misuse in those activities are either stable or trending in
the right direction for most age groups and most ethnic groups.
Firearms accidents are falling faster than accidents in general. And
none of the trends is tied to firearm or handgun availability, which
are fairly stable over time.
There is one group for whom one might with some accuracy --
ignoring the fact that violence is not a disease -- say there is an
epidemic, in the sense of a sudden upsurge. Homicide among black
inner-city males aged 10-24 could honestly be described as at epidemic
proportions. Beneficial trends from the 1970s and early 1980s ended
abruptly and dramatically. Calling the hopeless, remorseless killers
"children" or "kids" and denouncing the tools they use is neither
honest nor likely to be effective. The killings involve persons who
have been deprived of moral training by their parents -- and often
deprived of supervision by more than one parent, if that many -- and
by their over-politicized ministers. Their non-violent television and
motion picture shows glamorize insults, with most of television and
motion picture programming, and the music which entertains them,
glamorizing physical and sexual violence -- against society and its
representatives, against women, and against each other.
Efforts seriously to address the issue face a number of
obstacles. One is the concern by black leaders that studying the
causes of violence in America will result in racist conclusions.
(Stone, 1992) Other black leaders -- "Sister Souljah," Rep. Maxine
Waters, and Bryant Gumbel -- defend criminal violence. Tightened
government budgets do not allow for expanded social services or
punishments, With more black males incarcerated than in college, and
more of their females unwed mothers than wed, the future is similarly
CDC researchers observe this and denounce firearms
availability among persons not at risk, say that violence threatens
small town and suburban America, and that we have to do something
about the children. And their researchers think of the infant in the
HCI/NCBH literature, playfully pointing a pistol at its head -- its
AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics]
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1989b Findings from Periodic Survey #3: Gun Control.
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AAP Committee on Adolescence
1992 Policy Statement: Firearms and Adolescents. AAP News
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1992 Policy Statement: Firearm Injuries Affecting the
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1992 Assault Weapons as a Public Health Hazard in the United
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[stopped editing here]
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1992 Testimony before the Senate Committee on the
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1991 The Influence of Delinquent Peers: What They
Think or What They Do? Criminology 29:851-866.
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1992a Epidemiologic Changes in Gunshot Wounds in
Washington, DC, 1983-1990. Archives of Surgery
Webster, Daniel W., Modena E.H. Wilson, Anne K. Duggan, and
Lawrence C. Pakula
1992b Firearm Injury Prevention Counseling: A Study
of Pediatricians' Beliefs and Practices.
1992c Parents' Beliefs About Preventing Gun Injuries
to Children. Pediatrics 89:908-914.
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1992 Loaded Guns in the Home: Analysis of a National
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1988 The Mortality of Hospital Acquired Bloodstream
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Whitaker, Catherine J. and Lisa D. Bastian
1991 Teenage Victims: A National Crime Survey Report.
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1991 Saving Children: A Guide to Injury Prevention.
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1987 Firearms as a Cause of Death in the United States,
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Wintemute, Garen J. et al.
1987 When Children Shoot Children: 88 Unintended
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1977 Manual of the International Statistical
Classification of Diseases, Injuries, and Causes
of Death. Geneva, Switzerland.
1989 World Health Statistics Annual. Geneva,
Wright, James D. Peter H. Rossi, and Kathleen Daly
1983 Under the Gun: Weapons, Crime, and Violence in
America. New York: Aldine.
Wright, James D. and Peter H. Rossi
1986 Armed and Considered Dangerous: A Survey of
Felons and their Firearms. New York: Aldine de
The budget of the CDC's division on injury control and prevention --
concerned primarily with motor vehicle accidents and intentional injury (largely
focusing on firearms) -- is larger than the budget of the Institute for Legislative
Action, the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association (NRA). (Houk, 1991)
In public speeches, CDC personnel make it clear they want more restrictive gun
laws. In talks with the media, it is made clear they want their research to be
used to get restrictive gun laws and a voluntary reduction in firearms ownership.
One of its workshops, chaired by a CDC grant recipient with a CDC employee
overseeing activities, called for a ban on the private possession of handguns in
1985. (U.S. Public Health Service, 1986; Goldsmith, 1989; Taubes, 1992) And
its anti-gun policies preceded its research. (U.S. Public Health Service, 1979)
Grants appear to be given as rewards for previous anti-gun work, as in the case
of Arthur Kellermann, Garen Wintemute, Colin Loftin, and Stephen Teret. A
CDC-funded conference in Iowa featured the nation's leading anti-gun lobbyist
as keynote speaker. It may not lobby any more than the "educational" offshoots
of the two major anti-gun lobbies, but it is assuredly as much an anti-gun
organization as they, and with more money.
James Madison is rumored to have said, "Some degree of abuse is
inseparable from the proper use of everything." Washington Post, October 26,
1992, p. D2.
Public Law 99-649 essentially calls upon the CDC to study the issue of injury
to children, without defining that which is to be studied. The bipartisan
legislation has not been claimed as a lobbying victory by HCI, but was instead
presumably simply the CDC and the Department Health & Human Services
asking Congress to authorize it to do that which it wanted to do. The measure
was enacted at a time when the data available to Congress would have shown
trends moving in the right direction.
At the press conference, the allegation that the problem of violence had
spread to the suburbs and rural areas, thus spurring greater interest by the AMA
and the CDC, was ill received by some of the black reporters present. They did
not doubt the trend, but perceived some racism if violence spreading to white
suburbs is what made violence a serious concern to public health professionals.
Firearms seem to bring out some of the least appropriate teaching behavior by
persons who should know better. It is generally considered risky to teach by
negative example. So a coloring book for children put out by the Pennsylvania
Division of the American Trauma Society generally observes this in a series of
two-page messages on a variety of topics. The first page of the smoke alarm
message shows the boy being awakened; the second indicates he got his family
out safely and then called "911," an example of proper behavior. With a first
page indicating a child burning her hand on a hot pot, the second shows proper
treatment for the minor wound. When the first page shows a ball going into the
street and a child about to run after it, the second shows another child properly
warning the child to stop, that a car is coming. But when the first page shows
children finding a parent's gun, the second page showed one playmate shooting
the other. "Ouch!": Anybody Can Get Hurt. Mechanicsburg: n.d.
Public health professionals, for reasons long since outdated, do not like the
use of the words "accident" or "accidental." They prefer to distinguish between
intentional and unintentional injuries. It is unclear what is gained by saying
unintentional injury, except when one wishes to distinguish accidents from both
inner- and other-directed violence with a dichotomy. For criminological
purposes, using "unintentional" solely to describe accidental injuries risks
occasionally misleading where the outcome of an intentional action is an
unintentional injury or death. In addition, unless "injury" or "trauma" or the like
follows, the distinction may be misleading. Intentional deaths include suicide
and homicide, but unintentional deaths might include heart disease, cancer, etc.,
and one could certainly consider infectious diseases unintended. "Accident" has
long since lost any connotation of inevitability the public health profession might
once have feared. And accident, better than unintended, would seem to describe
that small fraction of accidental shootings which involve an intentional shooting
of someone mistakenly thought to be a threatening intruder. (Kleck, 1991:ch.7)
It is unclear to what extent careful categorization is used deliberately to
mislead, and to what extent it is merely a rhetorical benefit when public health
professionals deal with an incredibly sloppy news media.
Bias does not necessarily affect the carelessness of reporters, who are
perhaps the only persons other than public health professionals (AMA Council
on Scientific Affairs, 1992) who consider the news media to be reliable sources
of information. When Fortune magazine chose to do a cover story on "Children
in Crisis," one of the reporters interviewed anti-gun activist Stephen Teret, of
Johns Hopkins University, regarding how to keep guns away from children.
Teret explained both his position and that of the National Rifle Association. The
magazine attributed to Teret his statement regarding the NRA's position: "What
we need to do is gun-proof children rather than child-proof guns." (Henkoff,
The legislative history of a bill to study children's injury deaths also noted
that injuries were the leading cause of all deaths of persons aged 1-44 -- a
defensible statement, but perhaps a misleading suggestion about possible
definitions of children. U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News, 99th
Congress, 2nd Session (1986) 6:6162.
It has been estimated that there were approximately 25 air-gun related
deaths in the United States among persons of all ages during the 1980s.
It has been reported that the AAP has a voting membership of approximately
26,000. JAMA 267:221 (January 8, 1992).
The unpublished data were provided by the AAP on the request of the
author, clearly identified as affiliated with an organization not in agreement with
the official policy of the AAP, but with no hesitation by the AAP beyond the
traditional stamp reading: "Not for citation or quotation without permission of
the author." (Permission was given in a letter from the AAP's Holly S. Ruch-
Ross, Director of Public Health Research, September 30, 1992.) This
dissemination of material a private organization had no obligation to supply
contrasts sharply with the refusal of the CDC to comply with requests for
information, even though the data collected at the expense of the taxpayers are,
under law, supposed to be disseminated to those filing Freedom of Information
Act requests. Instead, CDC researchers "complain that FOIA requests are
aimed only at frustrating their research." (Taubes, 1992)
The AAP correctly notes that gunshot wounds are more apt to be treated in
emergency rooms and child abuse in office visits, making comparisons dubious:
more pediatricians will treat child abuse but a few pediatricians may treat many
gunshot wounds. Letter from Dr. Ruch-Ross.
Interestingly, of pediatricians who rode bicycles, 55% indicated that they
never wore a helmet; of those with children under age 18 who rode bicycles,
35% of the children never wear a helmet.
Relativity is an issue generally ignored as well when costs are involved. It
has been estimated, for example, that treating gunshot wounds cost more than
$1-billion in 1984 (Martin et al., 1988). But that figure ignored the fact that it
represented approximately one-quarter of one percent of medical expenses that
year, or that hospital caused blood infections costs an estimated $5-billion
(Wenzel, 1988) or that health care fraud costs an estimated $70-billion
Even with the increased number of shots, 92% of the shooting victims still
had fewer than five wounds, a number capable of being inflicted with either
revolver or semi-automatic pistol.
The lifetime risk of an emergency room physician contracting AIDS in a 20-
year career of medical service is about one in 70, while the chance of a child
being accidentally shot to death during a similar period of (extended) childhood
is about one in 8,000. (Ling, 1992; NSC, 1991) But physicians feel more
compelled to lobby against firearms than to personally use protection.
By the time the statements were printed, AIDS was the eighth leading cause
of death, supplanting suicide, but remaining behind "firearms" as a "cause" of
death. (NCHS, 1992:19)
There is an inconsistency in the call for childproofing handguns and some
other policies of anti-gun activists. Generally speaking, semi-automatic pistols
are safer from accidental misuse than revolvers. In addition to having more and
more potential variety of safety devices, chambering a round is generally more
difficult for small children. The springs in some military-style semi-automatic
pistols and rifles make it difficult even for weaker adults to chamber a round.
The second sentence would seem to suggest that hunter and target-shooting
education are effective, contrary to the conclusion of the AAP.
While not generally enthusiastic about the National Rifle Association, the
Washington Post described the NRA's "Eddie Eagle" book on firearms safety
education for children as "[a] must for any parent who keeps a gun in the home."
(January 7, 1992, p. B5) Others have refused to consider using the "Eddie
Eagle" program, while admitting it to be a good program, because of the policies
of the NRA. It is apparently more important to avoid the appearance of
endorsement of NRA policies than to promote child safety. (Jackson, 1992)
Data on the ages of the victims was provided by the Office of Policy of the
Assistant Comptroller General of the United States in a letter sent to the author
May 31, 1991.
The Sturm Ruger company issued a recall for its old model single-action
revolvers many years ago, offering to retrofit them, free, with a transfer bar so
that a dropped gun with a round in the cylinder under the hammer, would not
accidentally discharge. Ruger even assured gun owners that the older parts
would be returned with the revolver, so that collector value would not be lost.
The company wrote to all known owners and advertised extensively and is still
advertising this policy regularly. It is not known, of course, how many of the
1.25-million revolvers produced still exist, but just over 10% of those produced
have been retrofitted. (Personal communication) Competitive shooters
frequently permanently disengage the grip safety on Colt semi-automatic pistols.
When having some improved grips put on a semi-automatic pistol by friends, the
author had to plead with them not to remove the magazine safety (a device
which should prevent the gun from being fired with a round chambered if the
magazine is not in the pistol). Many gun owners do not wish excessive safety
devices on their firearms. One of the reasons for the popularity of the Glock
pistol with law enforcement is that it has fewer safety devices than competing
In order to associate an increase in handgun availability to women with an
increase in gun-related deaths by women, the CDC's James Mercy and Mark
Rosenberg, and the CDC-funded Garen Wintemute simply lied about timing.
Accompanying a box saying: "The rate of firearm-related deaths among women
is increasing," Dr. Wintemute notes that "Gun sales plummeted in the 1980s,
and the gun companies went looking for new markets. They found the same
markets that the tobacco industry did in the 1950s -- overseas markets and
women." (Wintemute, 1991) And Mercy noted that "Firearm death rates in the
1980s were ...the highest ever for females and teenage and young adult males."
(Cotton, 1992) And "Firearm mortality rates for women...have been higher
during the 1980s than at any time previously." (Rosenberg and Mercy, 1991:5)
The problem is that the source for the statement regarding a peak in women's
gun-related death rates was an article which stopped collecting data in 1982, and
which demonstrated that firearm-related deaths among women peaked in the
early-mid 1970s, and that gun-related death rates for women declined irregularly
after that. (Wintemute, 1987) During the 1980s, the firearm-related death rate
for women fell. (NCHS, 1991)
Dr. Christoffel complained at the 1992 meetings of the American Trauma
Society that she should not be cited for what she admits is an erroneous
statement, asserting that she was shocked when she read the written testimony
which had been prepared for her by the AAP. It might be noted, however, that
there was nothing in her oral testimony which either corrected the false
statement or presented any data which would contradict it. (U.S. House of
The basis for the study was 47 suicides in western Pennsylvania (Brent et al.,
1991), and a letter to the editor described it as a small-scale study (Blackman,
1992). The authors responded that it was not really small scale, since it
replicated an earlier study involving 27 suicides (Brent and Perper, 1992).
Blackman suggested that perhaps the higher level of gun ownership among
non-disturbed teenagers than, overall, among the mentally disturbed, might mean
there is a positive relationship between firearms in the home and mental health,
suggesting more study of the hypothesis. The authors responded, oddly,
ignoring the fact that none of their study involved any mentally healthy teenager,
that: "Both the suicide victims and suicide attempters were psychiatrically ill,
but the rate of firearm ownership was higher in families of suicide victims,
suggesting that there is no relationship between psychiatric illness in an
adolescent and gun availability." (Blackman, 1992; Brent and Perper, 1992)
Doctors sometimes have trouble with simple arithmatic. When a
representative for the anti-animal testing Physicians Committee for Responsible
Medicine wrote to the JAMA claiming to speak for 3,000 physician-members,
the official AMA response was to belittle the figure by noting that "its
membership represents less than 0.005% of the total US physician population."
(JAMA 268:789) Criminologists working for the CDC adopt similar
problems. For testing a model using monthly data, it was asserted that two years
prior to October 1976 was January 1974. (New England Journal of Medicine
326:1160) The anti-gun researchers at the CDC also have trouble
concerning themselves with seeming inconsistencies, as preliminary studies tend
to be cited as if results are definitive. For example, the CDC is unconcerned
about the seeming inconsistency of saying that the risk of suicide is doubled for
suicidal teenagers if a gun is in the home, but tripled for adults as a whole, from
a rather skewed sample. (Kellermann et al., 1992) Nor does it concern them
that the invented "75 fold" comes close to being the (uncalculated) crude odds
ratio for increased likelihood of suicide if there is a history of depression or
mental illness (Kellermann et al., 1992:470) while noting the serious problem
with suicide now was with young men and dismissing depression as a relevant
factor. (Rosenberg and Mercy, 1991:4)
It is worth noting, however, that the increase in homicide and other violent
crime is not limited to the United States, but is also occurring in those European
nations with economic problems. (Bruner, 1992; Newman, 1989; S. Simon,
The raw numbers from the FBI (which are generally minimally lower than
NCHS data) for 1991 indicate stability or slight decreases in homicides between
1988 and 1991 for those under 1, 1-4, 10-14, 35-44, and 45-54, a clear decrease
for those 5-9, 25-34, and over 54, and a significant rise only for those 15-24.
(Hammett et al., 1992, and FBI, 1992.)
The medical profession is rather careless in the spelling of names.
Kellermann's name is frequently misspelled, even in an article co-authored by
Kellermann (Kellermann et al., 1991:39), and JAMA misspelled another author's
first name, changing her apparent gender (Lee and Sacks, 1990).
The CDC is not as likely to note that younger killers are more apt to use
firearms than older killers, so much as to ignore the FBI data on use of firearms
and cite the prevalence of firearms in teen killings and project it to all homicides,
with Dr. O'Carroll, for example, noting that three fourths of homicides "are
caused by firearms," rather than the FBI figures for all ages in the 58-65% range.
While it is clear that 400,000 represents for HCI the sum of 135,000 daily
plus 270,000 non-daily, it is unclear whether it refers to only to males and only to
handguns or to both sexes and all firearms. And it is sometimes reported as if
the 135,000 is part of the 270,000. The 135,000 figure has been used referring
to youngsters and referring to males. Center to Prevent Handgun Violence,
1989, 1991, and n.d.. The source for the estimate was improved by the New
York Times ("America's Future," July 6, 1990, p. A25): "A commission
established by the American Medical Association and the National Association
of State Boards of Education reported last month that American teen-agers have
profound problems of physical and emotional health. The commission was made
up of medical, educational and business leaders, including former Surgeon
General C. Everett Koop.
"On an average day, the commission said, 135,000 students bring guns to
If, and to the extent, survey questions are improved, trend knowledge will be
distorted or delayed.
HCI has credited the survey to the Department of Health & Human Services.
Curiously, while setting a goal of reducing the amount of carrying of weapons by
teenagers, the HHS and its CDC said the baseline for determining how many
now carried would be established in 1991 (the 1990 survey -- CDC, 1991) rather
than indicating there was a previous baseline possible. (Rosenberg and Mercy,
On March 30, 1991, the Washington Post editorially reported that there was
a 61% rise in the number of weapons confiscated during the preceding two
years. Sen. Biden reported a 1% decline between 1989 and 1992. Both
statements could, of course, be accurate.
The version passed by the House of Representatives in the 102nd Congress
(1991-1992) called for a seven-day waiting period. The Senate version called for
a wait of five working days, with working days defined in terms of government
offices, which are generally closed two days each week, plus holidays. The
Senate "compromise" would thus mean a wait of 7-10 days.
It is a federal felony to acquire a handgun in a state other than one's state of
residence, and doing so through a licensed dealer and bringing it back into one's
home state would normally entail the commission of a few felonies each
punishable by up to five years imprisonment and/or up to a $5,000 fine. 18
U.S.C.921 et seq.
Ironically, many politicians most stridently calling for the government to tell
people how to store their firearms at home also rhetorically call upon
government to "get out of the bedroom," a room commonly used for the keeping
of home-protection arms.
In general, the U.S. suicide rate is exceeded by most formerly Communist
and by non-Catholic European nations, as well as by Canada and Japan. World
Health Organization, 1989.