What the Media Gets Wrong About Children Dying of Gunshots

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A truly heartbreaking study has just been published in the journal “Pediatrics” showing that the third leading cause of death for children in the US is gunshots. If you’ve spent any time in the US looking at the news, you’ll know that guns are a very serious problem here, with mass shootings so regular that there have been a few times this year when I’ve seen one reported and mistakenly assumed that it was one that had happened earlier in the day. In 2015 there were 372 mass shootings in the US, so yep — more than one per day on average.

Another fun fact: more Americans have died in the US from guns in the past 50 years than all American who have died in every war the US has ever fought for its entire history. See? Fun!

So this new statistic, that gunshots are the third leading cause of death in children, isn’t exactly surprising. But I want to talk about it because while it is terrible, the news outlets reporting on it are misleading in a way I find important to note.

For instance, over on Newsweek an article declares the study findings in the headline and then opens by pointing out the tragic deaths of four children who were accidentally shot with guns in June alone, and we’ve still got a week and a half of June left. All four kids are under the age of 9.

Here’s the issue: the study was about “children” as defined legally — under the age of 18. And it’s not just about accidental deaths — it includes murders and suicides. When you break down the actual categories, you see that the deaths of the children mentioned in the article actually account for less than 6% of cases.

Newsweek doesn’t link to the study although the entire thing is available in full on the Pediatrics website where you can see that the researchers broke the victims down into two age groups: 0-12 and 13-17. Though the older group should be significantly smaller considering it encompasses only 5 years of age as opposed to 13 years of age in the younger group, older kids accounted for 82% of all victims.

I’m not just nitpicking, here. The problem with portraying all these gun deaths as accidentally happening to small children means that people will get the wrong idea of how we might go about combatting it. If the majority of these deaths really were accidental deaths of small children playing with guns, the solution is simply investing in gun safety education for kids and for adults, making sure guns are locked up and emptied of ammo or only able to be used by the owner. I say “simply” but obviously in the US nothing involving gun control is simple thanks to the lobbyists at the NRA, but still, it’s a fairly straightforward plan.

But because the actual data shows the vast majority are teenagers who are being murdered or killing themselves, the solution becomes a multi-pronged one. We need to do the above (because there are still young kids accidentally killing themselves and others) and also we need to keep kids out of gangs, and we need to keep gangs out of neighborhoods. We need to fix underlying factors like poverty. And we need better access to psychological counseling for youth, especially those that are most at-risk and have access to guns.

And the thing is, the researchers say all that really clearly in their study, but it’s being overlooked because people care more about toddlers accidentally shooting themselves than poor 15-year old kids dying in gang shootouts. The latter is the greater problem, but it also requires the most complicated solution — and unfortunately, humans tend to prefer dramatic events with simple fixes.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Essentially, yes. The other one is school shootings, but they’re relatively rare, and tend to get a bunch of scapegoats. (Besides guns, I’ve heard that movies, video games, RPGs, heavy metal, the goth lifestyle in general…Yeah, basically, everything.) And of course, school shootings are stereotypically white suburbanites.

    At least they’ve moved beyond “Ban the AR-15!”, which is more symbolic than anything. (Obviously if you ban the AR-15, then anyone who would get an AR-15 to commit a crime will move on to their second pick.)

  2. Would getting rid of all those guns not be an idea?

    To an outsider like me, that seems a more obvious solution than trying to fix poverty or provide phsychological counseling. But then again: I live in The Netherlands. We’re used to the fact that it can be quite a hassle to take the lives of our fellow men. An inconvience that is somewhat balanced by the relative lack of dead children.

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