In the line of fire

In Ohio and elsewhere, children have become part of the collateral damage of America’s gun culture

Handguns sometimes are within reach of children.
Handguns sometimes are within reach of children.

Congress' inability to enact reasonable gun-control legislation, including universal background checks, has marked one of its most egregious failures over the past year. That’s saying a lot.

Prodded by a well-organized and well-funded gun lobby, lawmakers have rejected practically all reasonable regulations, including comprehensive background checks, bans on assault rifles, and limits on the size of magazines.

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A report this week by the New York Times, documenting hundreds of accidental and often preventable child deaths by firearms, may not soften the ardent opposition to any changes in U.S. gun laws. Still, easy access to guns has aggravated these avoidable tragedies.

The Times report should become part of the national debate on gun control, while underscoring the need for greater awareness of gun safety procedures, new technology, and laws that make negligent adults criminally liable for accidental shooting injuries and deaths.

As the report shows, the accidental shooting of children, usually by other children, is far more prevalent than recognized, partly because medical examiners and coroners often identify such shootings as homicides. The undercount demonstrates the need to expand the National Violent Death Reporting System by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — an effort that Congress has thwarted and the National Rifle Association opposes.

More than half of the 259 accidental firearm deaths involving children under 15 in eight states that keep such records, including Ohio, were not initially identified as accidents. In Ohio, California, Georgia, and North Carolina, the Times reported twice as many accidental killings as were tallied in federal data.

The Times reported a case in northeast Ohio in which a 3-year-old boy was killed last year by a .45-caliber pistol hidden under the couch by the boy’s father. Lucas Heagren found the gun and shot himself through the right eye.

In many other cases nationwide, children were shot accidentally by other children. In still others, adults killed a child while hunting or cleaning a gun.

Some adults had tried to store guns safely, but others were grossly negligent. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of shooters, and victims, were boys, reflecting obvious differences in the level of attraction to guns shown by boys and girls.

Efforts to legislate so-called smart gun technology that aim to make guns childproof have faltered, partly because of technical problems but also because the NRA has downplayed the problem.

The NRA cited the lower official numbers of child shooting deaths in opposing safe-storage laws. New findings should refute efforts to minimize the problem or oppose safety laws.

The Times reported that most fatal accidental shootings involving children were related to their access to firearms, whether the shooting was self-inflicted or done by another child. Most of the accidental firearm deaths involved handguns, especially among victims younger than 6.

The report raises more troubling questions about the availability of guns in America. At the very least, Congress, the Ohio General Assembly, and groups that represent gun owners should publicize these tragic statistics in promoting safe storage laws and safety measures such as gun locks.