Kids injured in school shootings and drive-by attacks with high-powered firearms have grabbed national headlines, but the leading cause of gun-related injuries in children and adolescents in the Dayton area are BB and pellet guns that send dozens of kids to the hospital each year.
“I don’t want to downplay gun violence, but we don’t see teen gangs shooting each other here like in some other cities,” said Dr. Thomas Krzmarzick, medical director of the Soin Pediatric Trauma and Emergency Center at Dayton Children’s Hospital. “On the other hand, BB guns are a major problem in this community, but they don’t get the same attention.”
More than 53 percent of the 79 gun-related injuries treated in Dayton Children’s emergency department over the past three years have been the result of either accidental or intentional shootings with BB or pellet guns, according hospital statistics that show 18 of those patients had to be hospitalized.
At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, about 30 percent of the 63 gunshot victims treated in the hospital’s emergency department during the same period suffered from either BB or pellet gun wounds, the hospital reported.
Many victims suffered severe and long-lasting injuries, such as perforated bowels and kidneys or damage to their lungs and heart that required extensive follow-up treatment and rehab and occasionally resulted in disfigurement or permanent disability.
“People think these guns are toys, and they’re not toys. They can actually do some serious damage,” Krzmarzick said, noting that a large percentage of BB and pellet gun injuries are eye injuries.
“You really can shoot your eye out,” he said, referring to the holiday movie classic “A Christmas Story,” in which 9-year-old Ralphie Parker is told repeatedly that the BB gun he wants is dangerous, and that he’ll shoot his eye out.
Not real guns
In most states, BB guns, pellet guns and paint ball guns are not considered firearms because they use gas, springs or compressed air and not gunpowder to shoot projectiles.
But modern day air guns are much more powerful than Ralphie’s Daisy Red Ryder, which shot lightweight BBs at a maximum velocity of about 350 feet per second and was not considered very harmful or lethal.
By comparison, many of the break-barrel or pump-action air guns sold today can shoot lead pellets at anywhere from 1,200 to 1,600 feet per second — faster than a bullet fired from a a conventional .22 caliber rifle — and are even marketed for hunting small game.
“We’ve had a warning for many years that any BB gun or air gun that can fire at 350 feet per second or greater is considered a high-velocity air gun,” said Scott Wolfson of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. “They can be very dangerous. They can penetrate skin, and they can penetrate bone and do serious damage to vital organs.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates there were more than 19,000 emergency department visits related to BB gun and pellet gun incidents nationwide in 2012, up from just under 18,000 injuries in 2000.
While deaths are rare, they do occur, according to Wolfson: “On average, we see about four fatalities per year, involving air guns and BB guns.”
The safety commission recommends adult supervision with all models, especially high-velocity air guns, to avoid such injuries and deaths. But that is the extent of their oversight, and there are no federal safety standards or regulations regarding the use of gas, air or spring-operated guns.
Ohio and most other states have enacted laws to restrict the purchase, possession, or use of these guns by minors under age 16. And most manufacturers voluntarily attach warnings against misuse or careless use of their products.
But often times parents or guardians are not as vigilant as they should be about supervising their children once the gun is in their possession, according to Krzmarzick, who said most of the BB and pellet gun-related injuries he sees at Dayton Children’s occurred when the child or adolescent was playing with a gun in or around his home unattended.
“If I wanted to drop the number (of gun-related) injuries dramatically, what I would do is educate people on the dangers of BB guns, especially the pump guns,” he said. “And if you’re going to buy your kid a BB gun, they need to be properly supervised. The tragic part of all of this is that most of these injuries could have been prevented.”