“Start Them Young” – The Reality of Children and Guns

Much like the tobacco industry before it, the firearms industry — gun and accessory manufacturers, trade associations (both self-proclaimed, such as the NSSF, and de facto, such as the National Rifle Association) and related publications — consistently denies the risk associated with its products, especially in the marketing of guns to children. As noted earlier, their arguments, such as NSSF’s assertion that hunting is safer than bowling, can at times be so divorced from reality that they cross the line from the absurd to the surreal.

Despite the rosy picture painted by the firearms industry, the combination of children and firearms poses risks that are widely recognized. These include death and injury, not just from unintentional shootings, virtually the sole category of firearm death acknowledged by the gun industry, but suicide and homicide. In addition, the exposure to lead that young shooters experience — either when firing a weapon or making their own ammunition, a practice commonly known as “hand loading” — can harm many different body organs and systems, including the brain, and exposure can lead to reduced intelligence as well as behavioral problems.

Youth Gun Deaths

In 2014, more than 1,300 children under the age of 18 died from firearms: 699 homicides, 532 suicides, 74 unintentional shootings,105 and 19 from undetermined intent. From 1999 to 2014, nearly 23,000 children under the age of 18 died from guns: 13,756 homicides, 6,903 suicides, 1,723 unintentional shootings, and 395 from undetermined intent.106

table three updated

For the age group one to 17 in 2014, unintentional injury was the leading cause of death, the most common cause of unintentional death being motor vehicle-related deaths (49 percent) and drownings (18 percent). Firearms accounted for two percent of all fatal unintentional injuries. Malignant neoplasms (primarily cancers) were second. Suicide was the third leading cause of death. Guns accounted for 40 percent of these deaths, making firearms the second most popular method of suicide for this age group, behind suffocation. Homicide was the fourth leading cause of death for this age group, with firearms being used in 59 percent of all homicides.108

A common myth is that children and teens living in rural areas do not suffer the effects of gun violence experienced by their contemporaries who live in urban environments, despite being exposed to guns at a young age. The fact is that guns kill rural youth at a rate equal to urban youth but in different circumstances. While more urban youth die from gun homicide, the difference is made up in rural areas through firearm suicide and unintentional deaths. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Pediatrics examined all pediatric firearm deaths up to age 19 from 1999 through 2006. The deaths were analyzed by rural-urban settings based on population size and proximity to metropolitan areas. The study concluded:

Children in the most-rural US counties had firearm mortality rates that were statistically indistinguishable from those for children in the most-urban counties. This finding reflects a greater homicide rate in urban counties counterbalanced by greater suicide and unintentional firearm death rates in rural counties.109

Parents also have significant ability to prevent youth suicide recognizing that adolescents who commit suicide most often use the family gun.110 By removing guns from homes where children and teens live, especially depressed adolescents, parents will reduce likelihood of suicide and unintentional death for everyone in the household, but especially for teens.

While 85 percent of suicide attempts with guns are fatal, other means are less lethal: only one percent of cutting or piercing attempts are fatal, while only two percent of poisoning/overdose attempts result in death.111 Moreover, studies show that many teen suicide attempts are impulsive. Of teens who survived a suicide attempt, one quarter said they thought of suicide just five minutes before making the attempt. There is also little truth to the widely held belief that those who attempt to kill themselves are determined to succeed. In fact, 90 percent of near-lethal suicide attempts do not attempt to kill themselves again.112

Lead: The Silent Health Threat from Firearms

While the health and safety threats of gun violence can be measured in death and injury, there is another reason guns pose a grave threat to human health and particularly children’s health: the toxic lead found in ammunition.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that is especially harmful to the developing brains of young children. It can harm many different body organs and systems, and exposure can lead to reduced intelligence and many behavioral problems. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains there is no safe level of lead in the blood for children, and states, “Even low levels of lead in blood have been show to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”113 114

Some of the Damaging Effects of Lead Exposure
“Loaded With Lead: Part 3,” Seattle Times, October 20, 2014

In recent decades, public health-based regulations have dramatically reduced the presence of lead in what were once common sources of exposure for children, such as lead-based paint and lead in gasoline. The major health threat that remains is lead from bullets. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates lead in paint and gasoline but is prohibited from regulating the lead contained in cartridges and shells. The EPA has rejected a petition filed by 101 environmental organizations to regulate lead from spent bullets and shot citing a section of the Toxic Substances and Control Act (TSCA) that exempts cartridges and shells from the agency’s reach. Both the NRA and the NSSF intervened in court to object to EPA regulation of lead in ammunition.115  A 2013 consensus statement from scientists from across the nation warned: “Lead-based ammunition is likely the greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States.”116

For both children and adults, the primary risk of exposure comes from shooting ranges, most notably indoor ranges. At the firing range, children can be exposed to lead through particles suspended in the air or even by eating contaminated food. Even when children do not go to the firing range themselves, they can be contaminated by clothing or accessories from adults returning from the range.117 The CDC recommends that individuals “shower and change clothes after finishing a task that involves working with lead-based products, such as stained glass, making bullets, or using a firing range.”118

browning kid
This photo from the cover of a 1997 Browning firearms catalog ignores the threat lead poses to children

Yet despite the well-documented public health risk, shooting ranges remain a largely unregulated industry. A recent investigation in the Seattle Times revealed that shooting range owners routinely violate workplace safety laws, resulting in their employees as well as their children and adult customers being exposed to lead. The newspaper found that only 201 of the estimated 6,000 commercial gun ranges in the United States have been inspected within the past decade, but 86 percent of those which had been inspected violated at least one lead-related standard. Thousands more gun ranges are volunteer-led or members-only clubs with no employees, and these do not have to follow federal regulations at all.119 Not surprisingly, while the NRA and its self-described gun industry “corporate partners” will at times pay lip service to the safety hazards posed by lead, their overriding focus remains actively encouraging children to visit shooting ranges. As a medical officer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health told the Seattle Times, “Some firing ranges cater to children, they have birthday parties and special events.” An NRA official, Susan Recce, told the newspaper, “The issue of lead problems for indoor ranges is extremely rare.”120

The facts state otherwise. At a Vancouver, Washington shooting range, tests in 2010 found 20 youth and young adults on the Rifle and Pistol Club team had been overexposed to lead. “We weren’t very cautious,” one of the participants was quoted as saying. “We would get lead on our hands and eat finger food.” Tests showed that the floor of the range had a lead level 993 times that allowed by a federal housing guideline.121

There is no cure or treatment for the effects of lead exposure, and the effects are chronic and irreversible. The only option is prevention. And yet, the response from all too many parents is to ignore the threat. In response to an online discussion thread titled “is 3 yrs old too young to help dad clean ar [AR-15 assault rifle]?,” one commenter responded:

The whole lead, chemical paranoia is out of control IMO [in my opinion]. I grew up with lead paint, played with lead toy soldiers, dunked my hands in kerosene while cleaning car parts and used real MEK to degrease stuff. According to my doc I’m in good health aside from high cholesterol. Use common sense. Don’t let your kid drink Hoppe’s or Frog Lube. Don’t let him stick his hands in his mouth…He’s more likely to drown or get hurt at the playground than die for touching the bolt of a rifle once a week.”122

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