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The Phantom Menace of Child Gun Deaths

by Sugi Sorensen

Introduction: In April of 1998, my local cable television company printed an announcement in their monthly statement that they were supporting an organization called Cease Fire in its effort to educate Americans about the dangers of having handguns in the home. In the announcement, my cable company reprinted erroneous and misleading statements by Cease Fire about the phantom menace of handguns in the home.

Over the years, I've been asked by many friends and colleagues for copies of the letter. Hence, the publication of my letter of response. Oh...and I did eventually cancel my service with the company and refused to ever do business with them since they never printed a correction.


Marcus Cable
Burbank District Office
601 S. Glenoaks Blvd
Suite 400
Burbank, CA 91501

Dear Sir, Ma'am:

I would like to point out erroneous and misleading information contained in your Summer 1998 "Customer Connection" newsletter. The article entitled "Marcus Cable and Cease Fire Take Aim at Handguns in the Home" misrepresents the facts about handguns in the home. I ask that you correct the misimpression stated in your newsletter, and rethink your support of Cease Fire. That you would decide to print specious facts in the first place is troubling.

At worst, the statistics you report are wrong. At best, they are selectively chosen to misrepresent the true risk posed by firearms in the home. I assume FIREARMS IN THE HOME is indeed the focus of your concern. However, the statistics reported in your newsletter combine data from outside the home as well.

In particular, you report:

"In 1994 gun deaths were the third leading cause of death for children ages 5-14."
This is misleading on several counts. Cease Fire's own website reports
"In 1991, gun accidents were the fifth leading cause of accidental death for children aged 14 and under."

SOURCE: National Safety Council. Accident Facts. 1992.

So is it the fifth or is it the third? More importantly, what do these numbers mean? Are these deaths in the home or do they include deaths outside the home as well?

To answer the first question, the two apparently discrepant quotes by Cease Fire measure different years and different age brackets. Why then do you report the more ominous statistic (i.e. the third leading cause of death for children ages 5-14)? My guess is you are choosing the more alarming of claims to scare your readers. I would like to point out that the Cease Fire statistics are misleading and incomplete. They are misleading because they do not count children under the age of 5. Why? Are not children under 5 still children? The reason they do not count children under the age of 5 is because doing so would skew the numbers much lower. The statistics are misleading because they do not include large numbers of babies and infant young who die from perinatal conditions, congenital anomalies, and sudden infant death syndrome.

Further clouding the picture is the lumping of multiple causes into single categories where they achieve a political purpose (e.g. combining four types of gun deaths -- homicides, suicides, accidents, and gun deaths due to unknown motivation -- into one category), while at the same time keeping multiple types of other 'causes' separated. Roughly 60% of suicides are committed with firearms. In the absence of firearms, it is likely these people would attempt the suicide through another means. However, there is no doubt that suicide attempts using firearms are more lethal. But including these numbers in a report ostensibly about accidents is disingenuous.

Regardless of semantics and statistical fine points, these are obviously too many deaths. Death, by whatever means, of children or adults, is tragic. Accidental deaths should be prevented. However, accidental deaths will always occur. There are risks associated with EVERYTHING. To understand risks, they must be taken in context and weighed against the benefits achieved from the factor which posed the risk.

To understand the deaths being discussed here in context, the ENTIRE statistics for 1997 (the most recent data I could find) are presented below. The data are compiled annually by the National Safety Council. It is a nonprofit, non-governmental, international public service organization started in 1913 and now federally chartered by Congress. Both sides of the gun debate use the same statistics (from the NSC).

According to the National Safety Council's "Accident Facts: 1997 Edition," (see there were 6,700 accidental deaths for children age 0 to 14. These accidental deaths break down to:

3,300 or 49.3% due to Motor-Vehicle accidents
1,000 or 14.9% due to drowning
660 or 9.9% due to fires, burns and deaths associated with fire
250 or 3.7% due to suffocation by ingested object
240 or 3.6% due to firearms
190 or 2.8% due to falls
100 or 1.5% due to poisoning by solids or liquids
60 or 0.9% due to poisoning by gases or vapor
900 or 13.4% due to all other types

6,700 or 100% due to all causes
A legal definition of children would include those up to age 18 (depending on the state). However, the statistics compiled by the National Safety Council aggregate persons into 5-year increments. As can be seen, firearms are either the *FIFTH* leading cause of death (not the third as you report), or the *SIXTH*, if "all other types" is included as a categorical cause, excluding deaths due to perinatal conditions, congenital anomolies, and infectious disease. Regardless of its rank, it can be seen just from the data above that only 3.6% of all accidental deaths under the age of 15 are caused by firearms. That is far less than those killed in motor-vehicle accidents, drowning, or in fires.

You also report:

"...every day in this country, nearly 15 children are killed by firearms through accident, homicides and suicides."
Despite the lack of data for children age 15 to 17, it is clear that nowhere near 15 children are killed by firearms every day. That would result in 5,475 children killed per year. As you can see from the data above, there are only 240, or less that one child killed by firearm accidentally per day.

However, whether it is 240 or 5,473, it is a tragic loss of life. More important is what can be done about it. Is the situation improving or getting better? The answer is the situation is obviously improving. Consider:

  • According to the NSC, from 1985 to 1995, fatal firearm accidents for all ages has decreased 15%.
  • Since 1930, the annual number of fatal firearm accidents has been cut by half, even though the U.S. population has doubled and the number of privately owned firearms has quadrupled.
As I said earlier, all of these deaths are unfortunate and tragic. Yet they represent a risk associated with a benefit. Certainly because 43,536 people died in fatal motor vehicle accidents in 1995 we did not ban automobiles or stop using them. We continued to use motor vehicles and thousands more died in 1996. But we were willing to accept that risk when compared to the benefit. Similarly, we did not stop using ladders or stop walking because 12,662 people died by falling in 1995. Likewise, firearms ownership is also a trade-off. The risk is firearm fatalities and injuries. The benefits are protection from criminals and (arguably) as the ultimate deterrent to an overbearing government, whether foreign or our own. Have you weighed the deaths caused by firearms accidents versus the number of lives saved because someone lawfully used a firearm in self-defense? One criminologist (Prof. Gary Kleck of Florida State University) has estimated that firearms are used more than 2.5 million times annually by Americans for protection from criminals.

To put the risk into perspective, here are the leading causes of death in the United States in the year 1995, for all ages, according to the National Center for Health Statistics:

ALL CAUSES 2,169,518
Heart Disease 720,862
Cancers 514,657
Strokes 143,481
  Motor Vehicle 43,536
  Falls 12,662
  Poisoning (solid, liquid, gas) 6,434
  Drowning (incl. water transport drownings) 4,685
  Suffocation (mechanical, ingestion) 4,195
  Fires and flames 4,120
  Surgical/Medical misadventures* 2,473
  Other Transportation (excl. drownings) 2,086
  Natural/Environmental factors 1,453
  Firearms 1,441
  Chronic pulmonary diseases 90,650
Pneumonia and influenza 77,860
Diabetes 48,951
Suicide** 30,810
HIV Infections (AIDS) 29,555
Homicide and legal intervention*** 26,513
Cirrhosis and other liver diseases 25,429

* A Harvard University study suggests 93,000 deaths annually related to medical negligence, excluding tens of thousands more deaths from non-hospital medical office/lab mistakes and thousands of hospital caused infections.

** Approximately 60% involve firearms.

*** Approximately 60% involve firearms. Kleck estimates 1,500-2,800 of these are self-defense and justifiable homicides by civilians against criminals, and another 300-600 by police annually.

As such, you can see that your focus on firearms is taken way out of proportion to its real impact. Rather than alarm your readers and misrepresent the facts, I strongly suggest you either check your facts first, or focus your efforts on what we pay you for -- providing quality cable television service.

I respectfully suggest you print a follow-up article in your newsletter clarifying the misimpression you perpetrated in the Summer 1998 issue. While ultimately you can spend my and other customers' money however you want, I suggest you choose your political causes more carefully. As it is, I am strongly considering canceling my subscription and buying satellite service instead.

Thank you.

Sugi Sorensen
La Cañada, CA 91011