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The Phantom Menace of Child Gun Deaths
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.
Burbank District Office
601 S. Glenoaks Blvd
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
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
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,"
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
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.
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
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.
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
- 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.
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:
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.
Poisoning (solid, liquid, gas)
Drowning (incl. water transport drownings)
Suffocation (mechanical, ingestion)
Fires and flames
Other Transportation (excl. drownings)
Chronic pulmonary diseases
Pneumonia and influenza
HIV Infections (AIDS)
Homicide and legal intervention***
Cirrhosis and other liver diseases
* 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
** 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.
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
La Cañada, CA 91011