Each year, more than 20,000 children go to U.S. emergency rooms with gun injuries, a new study estimates. That number is 30 percent higher than what researchers had previously found.
Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston analyzed reports from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey of U.S. emergency department visits from 1999 to 2007. In those eight years, they counted nearly 186,000 children, from newborns to 19-year-olds, who had been treated for firearm injuries. About 8,300 of those injuries proved fatal.
The study found that non-Caucasian boys age 12 and older were most likely to be injured by a gun. Forty-seven percent of the injuries they counted were in the South, but the Midwestern states had the highest proportion of gun injuries relative to the population size.
Dr. Saranya Srinivasan, one of the study's authors, said the pediatric emergency physicians have kept track of the numbers of children injured by guns for many years, but the higher numbers her study found were surprising.
"Perhaps the scope of this problem is much larger than what we had originally thought," she said.
The study, which Srinivasan and her colleagues will present Monday at the American Academy of Pediatrics' annual conference, found that 63 percent of the firearm injuries were intentional – from homicides, suicide attempts, or encounters with law enforcement. The remaining 37 percent were unintentional injuries that could have resulted from accidents in homes or on hunting trips.
"If one-third of these injuries are unintentional, that means they're possibly preventable through things like more careful firearm storage and better education about gun safety," said Dr. Lois Lee, one of the study's authors.
Many organizations place the responsibility for gun safety squarely on parents. The National Rifle Association advises parents who keep guns in their homes to talk to their children about gun safety as many times as necessary and to explain differences between guns in real life as opposed to those used by characters on television.
According to the Legal Community Against Violence, a public interest group dedicated to preventing gun violence, 27 states and the District of Columbia have laws mandating child firearm access prevention and safe storage of guns. A handful of states impose criminal penalties on parents of children who get access to firearms.
But the study indicated that more children have been injured not just from gun accidents but also from violence involving firearms. That's not a surprise to Dr. Alfred Sacchetti, chief of emergency services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, N.J., the city with the second-highest crime rate in the nation.
"With intergroup violence going on the cities now, children are just as likely to be collateral damage from a drive-by shooting as adults," he said. "We're also seeing that the ages at which kids themselves are getting involved in drugs and violent activity are going down."
The American Academy of Pediatrics says the best way for parents to keep their children from being injured by guns is to keep them out of homes. But for parents who do have guns in the house, the AAP says they should be kept unloaded and locked away, bullets should be locked and stored separately from the guns, and the keys to gun lock boxes should be hidden from children.