On 5 April, a two-year-old accidentally squeezed the trigger of a cocked and loaded .357-caliber revolver, which had been stashed under his mother’s bed for temporary safekeeping. It fired, and the bullet struck his 11-year-old sister in the chest, killing her.
The week around Halloween was marked by three toddler-involved shootings, which injured two children and an adult.
On 30 December, an Idaho woman was accidentally shot dead by her 2-year-old son while shopping at a local Walmart.
Such cases involving young children and firearms are shocking but not altogether uncommon in the U.S. Each year, dozens of children are killed in unintentional shootings; others pull the trigger, accidentally injuring and killing parents, siblings and friends.
“These are preventable deaths,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “They’re tragic and horrible, but ultimately preventable.
“This tragedy in Idaho needs to be the start of a serious national conversation about children and firearms. Because carrying a loaded gun in your purse while shopping with your two-year-old is a recipe for disaster. And in this case, the worst-case scenario played itself out.”
There are no definitive statistics on how many people are accidentally injured or killed by children and toddlers who get their hands on guns.
According to federal data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 62 children aged 14 and under died each year in unintentional shootings between 2007 and 2011.
But there is a caveat, explains Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch with the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Anderson said it was not uncommon to classify unintentional firearm deaths in which one person shoots another as a homicide, even if police reports indicate the shooting was an accident.
“What this means is that we underestimate accidental firearm deaths,” he said, adding: “We don’t really have a good assessment of the extent to which we underestimate these.”
There are studies that support the undercount, though they differ on the degree to which the figures are unreported. A 2013 New York Times investigation found that accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate.
Organizations like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America advocate for stronger laws to punish adults if they fail to store a gun safely and a child is able to access it. Just under 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws that hold gun owners criminally liable if children get hold of their guns, though nearly half of those states require proof that the owner intentionally, knowingly or recklessly gave the child a gun, according to a report by Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
The National Rifle Association has long opposed safe-storage laws, arguing that such measures address an inconsequential problem. The NRA’s position, as stated on its website, is that education and training are paramount for preventing gun violence.
There is also a push for Congress to fund research on “smart gun” technology – a concept of equipping firearms with fingertip recognition or RFID chips, for example – that proponents say make handguns safer. Proponents of such “smart guns” have said the NRA is the main obstacle to their development.
“As the leading firearm safety organization in the world we are heartbroken when tragic accidents occur,” Jennifer Baker, the NRA’s director of public affairs, told the Guardian. “No other organization does more to teach safe and responsible use of firearms than the NRA.
“The NRA teaches people how to prevent tragic accidents from happening and has been successful in saving lives, while, the anti-gun groups like those funded by billionaire [former New York mayor] Michael Bloomberg exploit tragedy to push legislation that infringes on law-abiding citizens’ right to self-protection.”