How often do unlocked guns kill children? The Michigan report has one answer

Written by Carol Thompson | Detroit news

DETROIT – A deadly shooting at Oxford High School has highlighted a simple measure that experts say can prevent children from reaching for a weapon: lock them up.

The state’s advocate for children said this could have saved at least 20 lives in Michigan over the past 18 months.

“Children deaths from unsafe firearms are preventable,” said Susanna Shkreli, director of the Michigan Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, which issued a special report on fatal gun encounters of children last year after noting a rise in fatal shootings with unsafe guns. “Ensuring that your firearms are safe and out of reach of children is a simple and reasonable step in protecting your children.”

In May, ombudsman investigators took a comprehensive look at reports they had received of children killed with weapons left unlocked and easily accessible. They were focusing on a case involving a Wayne County child who was killed with an unlocked handgun on October 30, 2020.

That night, a girl is found shot dead inside a house in Detroit on the West Side of the city; Police said two other children were present during the incident, but there were no adults.

“If we learn anything from this, hopefully you’ll have kids, kids, at home, put your gun down, lock it away,” Detroit Police Captain Lashana Potts said at the time. “And ask the adults to come.”

Ombudsman investigators found 10 more children killed with improperly stored pistols between June 2020 and April 2021. Five were shot while playing, four teens died by suicide and a young man was shot by an unknown person in public.

Shkreli said the ombudsman has since received additional reports, bringing the total to 20 children in about 18 months.

But it is difficult to get a complete picture of the role that unsafe guns play in child mortality in Michigan. The Ombudsman’s tally of 20 children killed within 18 months is not complete, as the office reviews only deaths of children involved in the child care system, such as children living in child care homes, so its understanding of the role of unsecured guns in child deaths is limited.

While state and federal health agencies track gun-related deaths, they do not track how shooters obtained used guns.

Research suggests that improper storage is common in homes with children and firearms, said Dr. Patrick Carter, an emergency medicine physician and director of the Injury Prevention Center at the University of Michigan.

He referred to a 2000 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which found that American parents don’t constantly lock their guns. Researchers reviewed the results of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey in 1994 and 2000 and found that many children had access to guns in their homes.

Specifically, they found:

35% of homes with children under the age of 18 reported having at least one firearm.

In those homes, 43% had at least one unlocked firearm. Firearms unlocked and 9% loaded. It was opened and unloaded but stored with ammunition at 4%.

In those homes, 39% kept firearms unlocked, discharged, and separate from ammunition.

As an emergency medicine physician, Carter became interested in violence prevention. He said that preventing children from laying their hands on a weapon is a key strategy, especially in times of high stress or when a child is depressed.

“If I move more into the things we can do before the event, I think some of those things are more promising,” Carter said, such as connecting at-risk children with behavioral intervention programs. “They prevent us from getting to the point where something like (a shooting or a suicide) happens. Locked storage is definitely one of those. You prevent a child in crisis from getting a gun.”

Carter said gun violence is a leading cause of death among American children and adolescents. Safe storage of guns is key to preventing further deaths.

Steve Dolan, vice president of the Michigan Alliance of Responsible Gun Owners, said gun owners are increasingly using home gun safes, because safes are cheap and readily available. Compare cabinets with other everyday safety measures, such as cutlery drawers that don’t allow children.

Dulan doesn’t support laws that require specific stocking techniques, though, while stressing that they won’t actually result in more people locking up guns.

“A lock is a good idea,” he said. “We just don’t support its legalization.”

Dolan also emphasized that it is disingenuous to confuse fatal shootings of teens with children who accidentally use a gun to hurt themselves or someone else.

In 2020, 84 Michigan children and teens up to age 18 were killed by a firearm, according to statistics provided by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Between 2010 and 2020, 799 Michigan children and teens were killed in gun-related accidents, according to statistics.

The section does not track whether the weapons used in those instances were locked prior to firing or how the shooter accessed the weapon.

While homicides and suicides account for the vast majority of gun-related deaths of children and teens in Michigan and nationwide, based on data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, unintentional shootings do occur among children.

The News reported in December that a two-year-old Detroit boy was hospitalized after finding an unsafe handgun in his home. The incident came after a series of Metro Detroit kids inadvertently shot themselves with unsafe rifles last year.

These include a 4-year-old girl in Detroit, a 5-year-old boy in Detroit and a 3-year-old boy from Roseville.

Unintentional shootings of children occur throughout the state. 9 & 10 News reported that a child inadvertently shot and killed a 5-year-old in Calcasca County in August. Wood TV reported that a four-year-old boy died after being inadvertently hit by a pellet gun in Ottawa County in May.

“As a large community, we need to focus on this and find evidence-based ways we can prevent this from happening across the spectrum, school shootings, suicides, homicides, and unintentional firearm injuries,” UM’s Carter said. “What can we do with the big writing that we know works?”

School shootings also account for a small portion of shootings, Carter said, but that they are “horrific events that often involve more than one person” and are often carried out with unlocked rifles.

In 2019, the US Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center released an analysis of 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred in US K-12 schools from 2008 to 2017. Their analysis included incidents in which current or new students used a weapon to hurt or kill At least one other student and/or school employee in the planned attacks.

In nearly half of the shootings, the Secret Service found that the gun used “was easily accessible, or not usefully secured,” and 76 percent of attackers used weapons they found in the home or a relative’s home.

It is unclear whether 15-year-old Ethan Curmbley, the accused Oxford High School shooter, had open access to arms authorities who say he used to kill four of his classmates and wound six others and a teacher on November 30.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen MacDonald said the gun was stored in his home in an open drawer. Lawyers representing his parents, who are also facing shooting charges, say the gun was locked.

In their review of child shooting deaths, ombudsman investigators recommended the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services create a handbook for child care workers to distribute to parents.

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