US & Canada

Children and guns in the US: Are shootings on the rise?

Little girl with gun Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption In the US, it's not uncommon for children to have easy access to guns

A four-year-old has killed herself using her grandmother's gun, the latest in a string of shootings that involve young children. Are these incidents on the rise?

Children and guns in the US are too often a deadly combination.

Of the 18,330 incidents recorded by Gun Violence Archive so far this year, 202 children under the age of 11 were injured or killed.

In some cases, guns were not locked away from children in the home at all.

What happened in the latest case?

A young girl in Detroit fatally shot herself after finding a handgun under her grandmother's pillow.

Police said the girl found the gun in an upstairs bedroom and shot herself while the grandmother was downstairs.

Two other young children, aged one and three, were upstairs at the time but were not hurt.

Have there been other similar incidents?

  • In Baltimore, Maryland, a two-year old accidentally shot his father, who survived.
  • A two-year-old boy in Indiana found his mother's gun in her purse and fatally shot himself.
  • In Missouri, a one-year-old girl shot and killed herself with her father's gun.

The cases for this year do not end there. For a grim look at the full numbers, the Gun Violence Archive keeps track of gun violence incidents in the US.

What do the figures say about children?

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence estimates that every day, seven children and teens die from gun violence, with about 41 being shot but surviving.

The group estimates that 2,677 children aged 0 to 19 die from gun violence each year, with another 14,822 surviving gun injuries. Of the deaths, 124 are unintentional.

One out of three homes with children have guns, according to the Brady Campaign, with 1.7 million children living in a house with a unlocked gun.

In the US, it is common to hear stories of children shot while playing with loaded guns or finding guns in drawers or unlocked bureaus.

Are these incidents on the rise?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US has approximately 300 million guns - nearly one for every member of the population

It is hard to determine whether shootings by toddlers have increased this year, or they are being reported on more often.

This month, the Washington Post reported that toddlers, defined as a one, two or three-year old, have shot at least 23 people this year.

And last year, the newspaper reported that toddlers were shooting people about once a week. So according to the Washington Post's analysis, the rate of toddlers shooting people has increased - 23 toddler-involved shootings occurred from 1 January to 1 May. Last year in the same period, 18 occurred.

The rate has not gone up by all counts, though. According to US group Everytown for Gun Safety, a slight uptick of shootings by children in that age group in a short period does not make a meaningful trend. Long term data on unintentional child shootings is too incomplete to make such comparisons yet, the group argues.

"We hope to get a clearer picture on this sad phenomenon as we continue to track these shootings," Valerie Jean-Charles, a communications associate with the organisation, told the BBC.

The Centers for Disease Control in the US used to ask Americans whether they store guns in their homes and lock them up. There is no longer federal data on this topic because of laws passed by Congress that keep the organisation from extensive gun research.

What can be done about it?

The Brady Campaign suggests parents ask "Is there an unlocked gun in the house?" before allowing children to go anywhere where they may not be familiar.

As the BBC has previously reported, the inquiry may seem strange to an international audience, but for American parents, it is becoming a routine.

"I always ask two questions: do you have a loaded gun in the house and do you have Internet filters," Kate Lacroix, a mother of an 11-year old girl, told the BBC last year.

"The responses I get are pretty interesting. But most people say they have never had anyone ask them this before."

Safe storage of guns provides some answers. A study published in the Journal of the American Association found that keeping guns locked and unloaded is associated with preventing injuries in homes with teenagers and children.

A study published in public health journal Epidemiologic Reviews found that safe gun storage programmes are effective - especially when participants are given a free way to lock up their own firearms.

The question US parents hate to ask

Is anyone held accountable?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted about American gun culture earlier this year

In one US case, a woman from Florida was accidentally shot in the back by her four-year-old son. The gun was underneath the front seat of her pickup truck.

Laws differ by state, but in Florida, it is illegal for minors to have a gun unless they are under adult supervision.

Authorities in Florida said the mother, 31-year-old Jamie Gilt, should have faced a misdemeanour charge for unsafe storage of a firearm - but she was ultimately not charged.

Instead, she must complete a gun safety course and provide proof that she is safely storing guns in her home and car.

Research from Everytown for Gun Safety shows that 28 US states and the District of Columbia have laws that hold gun owners criminally liable for children's access, but they vary greatly.

In Texas, the family member of a child who is shot cannot be arrested for improper gun storage within seven days of the shooting.

Provisions of laws in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Rhode Island also make criminal charges unlikely for gun-owning parents in the event of a shooting.