Panel Paper: U.S. Family Firearm Ownership and Firearm-Related Child Mortality from 1976 to 2014

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Acapulco (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kate C. Prickett, University of Chicago and Carmen Guiterrez, University of Texas, Austin

Despite firearm-related mortality declining over the past several decades, firearm-related injuries are still a top five cause of injury-related death among children in the U.S. (CDC 2010). Various explanations for this historical decline have focused on changes to gun control legislation and increased prevention programs targeting responsible firearm ownership. Another explanation centers on declines in firearm ownership more generally, whereby lower rates of firearm ownership among families over time should be correlated with similar trends in firearm-related injury and death among children. The decline in firearm-related child mortality, however, has not kept pace with trends in firearm ownership.

One potential reason may be due to differences in child versus adult firearm-related incidents. Among children, especially young children, shootings are more likely to be accidental or unintentional, making the ease at which a firearm can be used and access to that firearm a more important determinant of mortality than it might be for adults. Therefore, an important yet underexplored and policy-relevant mechanism for understanding population-level trends in firearm-related child mortality might not just be changes in firearm ownership among families, generally, but changes in the types of firearms in their homes, more specifically.

To explore this issue, this study has two main aims. First, to describe trends in firearm ownership and changes in the types of firearms owned in families with children, including changes in the sociodemographic composition of firearm-owning families. Second, to assess to what extent the stagnant firearm-related child mortality rate is due to changes in the sociodemographic composition of firearm-owning families, the firearm ownership rate, more generally, and types of firearms, more specifically. Using nationally-representative data from 1976 through 2014 from the General Social Survey and the National Vital Statistics System, we focus on families with young children for two primary reasons. First, there is general agreement in the developmental literature and public arena that children should not have access to firearms. Second, understanding the role changes in the types of firearms in households with young children plays in the child firearm-related mortality rate and who is most likely to own firearms can better inform the ongoing debate about child firearm access laws and regulations surrounding pediatricians rights and responsibilities to inform parents about firearm safety.

The preliminary findings show that, although declines in firearm ownership were associated with declines in the firearm-related child mortality rate, pistol and handgun ownership was a better predictor of firearm-related mortality among children. Importantly, the mortality rate did not seem to be explained by sociodemographic changes in the composition of families that owned firearms, despite shifts to characteristics that are traditionally predictive of lower injury risk. These findings have implications for laws targeting children’s access to firearms and regulations aimed at restricting pediatricians’ ability to talk with parents about firearm safety and storage behaviors. Importantly, this study suggests that specific types of firearms that are easier for children to operate and more likely to be loaded with ammunition and stored in an unsecure way pose an elevated risk to child health.