More than 150 young children in Ohio — including about 20 in this region — have been severely injured by unintentional shootings in the past six years, according to data analyzed by the Dayton Daily News.
Accidents were the leading cause of severe firearm injuries among children age 14 and younger in the state that led to significant hospitalization, data from the Ohio Trauma Acute Care Registry show.
Milllions of parents with minor children own guns, and sometimes owners underestimate the ability of children to access and operate their firearms, child advocates said.
Meanwhile, gun-rights groups said educating and training children on gun safety is the only way to prevent tragic accidental shootings.
“We should be teaching them, ‘If you find a gun, stop, don’t touch, leave the area, tell an adult,’ ” said Jim Irvine, chairman of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “The only way to guarantee safety is to educate them.”
But gun-control advocates claim Ohio needs a “safe storage” law to curb accidental shootings, which would require gun owners to lock up their firearms if there is a reasonable chance minors could access them.
“We can stop this, we just need responsible gun owners to store their guns properly if they know a child can access it,” said Renuka Mayadev, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund - Ohio.
On July 21, 2009, 3-year-old William McAnaul shot himself in the face with a 9mm handgun in the master bedroom of his family’s Vandalia home, according to a police report.
His mother, Patcine McAnaul, said she was on the computer in the bedroom when she heard a loud noise, and her ears started ringing, the report states. She found her son bleeding from the face. He shot himself near his right eye using his father’s gun. His mother told 911 dispatch that Will found the gun underneath the bed.
The child had a pulse and was still breathing when medics arrived on scene, the report said. He was transported by medical helicopter to the hospital, but he did not survive.
Many children in Ohio live in homes where guns are present. Nationwide, about one-third of U.S. parents with children under 18 own a firearm, according to Gallup polling data.
In Ohio, gun ownership could be on the rise. Sheriffs issued more concealed carry weapons permits in the first nine months of 2013 than they did in all of 2012, the Daily News reported earlier this month.
FBI background checks required for gun purchases in the state were up 22 percent through Oct. 31, compared to the same period last year. However, not all background checks lead to purchases.
About 159 children 14 and under in Ohio were severely injured by accidental shootings between 2007 and 2012, including 20 in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties. Severe injuries are defined as those that cause hospitalization for at least 48 hours or that cause death, said the Ohio Emergency Medical Services.
Of the 159 who were severely injured, five died from their injuries, the data show.
Children who are pronounced dead at the scene of a shooting are not included in the data, nor are children who were shot but were hospitalized for less than 48 hours. The data is submitted by hospitals across the state, and reporting is required by law.
Most people own guns for recreation or personal protection, and people who own guns for protection are less likely to safely store them because they want quick access in case of trouble, said Jonathan Groner, trauma medical director at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
“I have nothing against guns and hunting, but there are risks and benefits,” he said. “The problem is that people who want guns for defense aren’t willing to lock them up.”
Firearm owners with young children should use gun locks and safes, said Mayadev, with the Children’s Defense Fund - Ohio.
These safety devices still allow for quick access to weapons while greatly reducing the likelihood that a child will be accidentally shot or killed, she said.
Mayadev and Groner both support Ohio House Bill 31, which would require residents to lock up their firearms or render them inoperable if they leave them in their homes and there is a reasonable chance a minor could access them.
The legislation was introduced by Rep. Bill Patmon, D-Cleveland, and it had proponent testimony a few weeks ago.
“We need there to be mandatory safe storage in Ohio,” Mayadev said. “Then there would be criminal liability for an adult who has knowledge or has reasonable knowledge that a young child or minor can access the gun.”
Critics say existing state law already allows people to be prosecuted if their negligence contributes to the death of a child.
Earlier this year, a jury convicted Darke County residents Michael and Melody Fisher of child endangerment in connection to the August 2011 death of their 11-year-old son, Michael Fisher III. Michael shot himself with a gun in the family’s Fort Recovery home.
The residence contained more than 70 unsecured firearms and ammunition, and prosecutors described the conditions as an accident waiting to happen.
Education is key
Under current law, prosecutors can determine whether an unintentional shooting was accidental or the result of criminal negligence, and there is a huge difference, said Irvine, with the Buckeye Firearms Association.
“If someone runs over a child and kills them with their car, there are cases where it was criminal negligence and there are cases where it was a tragic accident,” he said. “It’s the same thing with guns — there are cases where it was criminal negligence and they should be prosecuted and there other ones that are terrible accidents.”
Safely securing a firearm in one household may not be safe in another, depending on a variety of factors, including the age and temperament of the children, he said.
“Safe storage is important, but a law telling me what is safe is impossible to craft because I don’t know what your house is like or what my house will be like a year from now,” Irvine said.
Accidental gun deaths among children are tragic, but they are rare, said the Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association. The odds are more than 1 million-to-1 against a child in the United States dying in a firearm accident, the group said.
“The only possible way to keep that child safe is education,” Irvine said. “They have to know the basic firearms rules — you treat all guns as if they are loaded.”
The Dayton Daily News compiled data from the state of Ohio and interviewed people on all sides of the gun issue to do this report.