Should your doctor ask your child if you own a gun?
Guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatric say "yes."
They warn that "Children are curious even if they’ve had some sort of firearm training. That’s why parents taking responsibility for safe gun storage is so essential.”
Doctors across the United States are being advised to interrogate children about mom and dad’s "bad" behavior.
It sounds simple enough, but the problem is that the advice ignores the benefits and exaggerates the costs of gun ownership.
Take a recent example from Massachusetts that was discussed in the Boston Herald:
"Debbie is a mom from Uxbridge who was in the examination room when the pediatrician asked her 5-year-old, 'Does Daddy own a gun?'
"When the little girl said yes, the doctor began grilling her and her mom about the number and type of guns, how they are stored, etc.
"If the incident had ended there, it would have merely been annoying.
"But when a friend in law enforcement let Debbie know that her doctor had filed a report with the police about her family’s (entirely legal) gun ownership, she got mad."
Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Accidental gun deaths involving children get national coverage. News programs stage experiments with 5 and 6-year-olds in a room filled with toys and a gun. Shocking pictures show the children picking up the gun and playing with it like a toy. For years, the Clinton administration would show public service ads with the voices or pictures of young children between the ages of 3 and 7 implying an epidemic of accidental gun deaths involving children.
With all this attention, the fear is understandable, but it is still irresponsible. Convincing patients not to own guns or to at least lock them up will cost more lives than it will save. It also gives a misleading impression of what poses the greatest dangers to children.
Accidental gun deaths among children are fortunately much rarer than most people believe. Consider the following numbers.
In 2003, for the United States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 28 children under age 10 died from accidental shots. With some 90 million gun owners and about 40 million children under 10, it is hard to find any item as commonly owned in American homes, as potentially as lethal, that has as low of an accidental death rate.
These deaths also have little to do with "naturally curious" children shooting other children. From 1995 to 2001 only about nine of these accidental gun deaths each year involve a child under 10 shooting another child or themselves. Overwhelmingly, the shooters are adult males with long histories of alcoholism, arrests for violent crimes, automobile crashes, and suspended or revoked driver's licenses.
Even if gun locks can stop the few children who abuse a gun from doing so, gun locks cannot stop adults from firing their own gun. It makes a lot more sense for doctors to ask if "daddy" has a violent criminal record or a history of substance abuse, rather than ask if they own a gun.
Fear about guns also seems greatest among those who know the least about them.
For example, those unfamiliar with guns don’t realize that most young children simply couldn’t fire your typical semi-automatic pistol. Even the few who posses the strength to pull back the slide on the gun are unlikely to know that they must do that to put the bullet in the chamber or that they need to switch off the safety.
With so many greater dangers facing children everyday from common household items, it is not obvious why guns have been singled out. Here are some of the other ways that children under 10 died in 2004.
Over 1,400 children were killed by cars, almost 260 of those deaths were young pedestrians. Bicycle and space heater accidents take many times more children’s lives than guns. Over 90 drowned in bathtubs. The most recent yearly data available indicates that over 30 children under age 5 drowned in five-gallon plastic water buckets.
Yet, the real problem with this gun phobia is that without guns, victims are much more vulnerable to criminal attack. Guns are used defensively some 2 million times each year. Even though the police are extremely important in reducing crime, they simply can't be there all the time and virtually always arrive after the crime has been committed. Having a gun is by far the safest course of action when one is confronted by a criminal.
The cases where young children use guns to save their family’s lives rarely makes the news. Recent examples where children’s lives were clearly lost because guns were locked and inaccessible are ignored.
Recent research that I did examining juvenile accidental gun deaths for all U.S. states from 1977 to 1998, found that sixteen states mandating that guns be locked up had no impact. What did happen, however, was that criminals were emboldened to attack people in their homes and crimes were more successful; 300 more murders and 4,000 more rapes occurred each year in these states. Burglaries also rose dramatically. The evidence also indicates that states with the biggest increases in gun ownership have had the biggest drops in violent crime.
Asking patients about guns not only strains doctor patient relationships, it exaggerates the dangers and risks lives. Yet, in the end, possibly some good can come out of all this gun phobia. If your doctors ask you whether you own a gun, rather than sarcastically asking them if they own a space heater, why not offer to go out to a shooting range together and teach them about guns?
John Lott, Jr., is the author of Freedomnomics and a Senior Research Scholar at the University of Maryland.