By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) – U.S. states with tighter restrictions on the purchase and use of guns and ammunition may have fewer children die from shootings, a new study suggests.
The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, but also some of the most relaxed gun laws, previous research has found. Firearm injuries are the second leading cause of death among American children, but most studies of policies to prevent fatal shootings haven’t focused specifically on kids, researchers note in Pediatrics.
For the current study, researchers examined data on children under age 21 who were killed by firearms to see how state regulations – including background checks for gun purchases, restrictions on carrying guns in public places and enhanced child and consumer safety policies – might influence the odds of fatal shootings. States could receive a maximum score of 100 for the strictest gun laws.
State gun law scores ranged from -39 to 81, and gun ownership ranged from 5.2% to 61.7% across states.
Every 10-point increase in state scores for stricter gun laws was associated with 4% lower rates of firearm-related child mortality, the study found.
In states where laws requiring universal background checks for gun purchases had been in effect for at least five years, rates of fatal shootings involving young victims were 35% lower than in states without background checks.
“Approximately seven U.S. children die from firearm-related injuries every day,” said Dr. Monika Goyal, lead author of the study and a researcher at Children’s National Health System and George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Our study adds to the growing body of literature that finds stricter firearm laws may reduce the burden of firearm-related deaths in our society,” Goyal said by email.
During the study, from 2011 through 2015, 21,241 U.S. children died from firearm injuries. Overall, this translates into an annual firearm related mortality rate of 4.65 per 100,000 kids, but rates in individual states ranged from 1.1 to 18.1 per 100,000.
About 62% of the deaths were assault-related, and nearly 69% occurred among 18- to 21-year-olds. About 87% of the deaths were in males.
Stricter gun laws were still associated with fewer childhood gun fatalities even after researchers accounted for state level differences in gun ownership and other social and demographic variables.
The study wasn’t designed to prove whether gun laws directly prevent childhood gun fatalities. Another limitation of the study is researchers couldn’t assess the impact of background checks for ammunition purchases, or firearm identification requirements with microstamping or ballistic fingerprinting, because too few states had such policies in place.
Beyond whatever laws states pass, parents can do a lot to set an example for their kids when it comes to guns, said Dr. Judy Schaechter, coauthor of an editorial accompanying the study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Parents should think twice about bringing guns into the home, and instead consider other storage options. Schaechter said by email. If they do, they should store guns locked and unloaded, and lock ammunition in a separate location.
And parents should ask whether there are guns in any homes where their children go to play.
“Take the risk that you may offend someone, rather than putting your child at risk of fatal or irreversible injury,” Schaechter said.