TAMPA, FLA. -- In the domestic arms race -- a gun is manufactured in the United States every 13 seconds -- Florida is the latest scene of escalation. Its permissive gun law, enacted Oct. 1, places few restrictions on gun buying or gun owning. The Tampa Tribune, which raised its eloquent editorial voice repeatedly against the law, estimated last May that a massive number of gun permits -- 130,000 -- would be authorized in the first year. The paper appears to have had it right. Days after the law went into effect, it reported "a rush for permits."
During the legislative debate, Jack Gordon, a state senator from Miami Beach, spoke for what would be the losing but rational side: "We all know that guns kill people, and the fact of having more guns, or more opportunity to have guns, is just going to mean more violence. There are going to be more people killed; there are going to be more little children who will shoot a gun at themselves or someone else."
The reference to children brings the debate home, literally. It's usually in bedrooms and living rooms where child's play becomes gunplay. Two recent studies provide invaluable research on what can happen to children unlucky enough to be born into gun-owning families.
"When Children Shoot Children," which appeared in a recent Journal of the American Medical Association and was written by five medical researchers, told of the 88 unintentional children's firearm deaths in California between 1977 and 1983. Both the shooters and the shot were 14 years of age or younger. The researchers estimate that 5,016 years of potential life were lost in the deaths.
In 82 of the 88 shootings, the firing occurred in a home. Most cases involved children finding a loaded gun -- in a drawer or closet, under a pillow or a bed. Sixty-one children were shot in the head or neck. Nearly half died instantly or within one hour of the shooting. Thirty-five deaths were self-inflicted. Fifty-two involved either a playmate or sibling.
The researchers cite several typical deaths:
"A 7-year-old boy was shot in the chest with a .22-caliber pistol by his 8-year-old brother. The brother had retrieved the loaded gun from a drawer in their parents' bedroom. Thinking it a toy, he aimed it at his younger brother and pulled the trigger."
"An 8-year-old girl was shot in the head by a 7-year-old playmate with a .38-caliber handgun. The loaded gun had been left under the couch by the victim's parents, who slept in the living room. The safety catch was broken."
"An 11-year-old boy was shot in the head by his 12-year-old brother with a 10-gauge shotgun owned by the boys' father ... Ordinarily the gun was kept unloaded. The previous night a prowler had been seen; the father loaded the gun at that time."
If there's no place like home for accidental gun deaths, there is no weapon like a firearm for successful suicide. In "Kids & Guns: A Child Safety Scandal," the National Coalition to Ban Handguns and the American Youth Work Center report that of the 4,400 American youths who kill themselves annually, 65 percent use firearms.
A psychologist from the American Association of Suicidology is quoted: "About 25 million households have handguns and half of these keep their guns loaded. Adolescents are impulsive. Having a gun around the house is an invitation to disaster. Adolescents who can't get a lethal weapon don't necessarily choose another. If they do, it's usually a less lethal method and you have a chance to intervene. Often if they can't get a weapon, the impulse passes."
Only the families of gun-killed children can express the depths of these firearm tragedies. Yet how many Mr. Machos, Handgun Honchos and Brave Sportsmen will have the courage or sense to junk their weapon in the name of child safety? To keep a gun for household safety is to ignore what every emergency room medical team knows -- guns offer little self-protection. Guns kept at home are eight to 12 times more likely to be involved in the deaths of friends or acquaintances as in those of intruders.
In the violent culture that is America, everyone is a potential gun victim. The highest-risk group is children, but what adult can say with any assurance "not me" when reflecting on the 9,000 handgun deaths expected in the next 12 months?
To live in a shooting gallery and know the risk is at least better than the predicament of children, who don't know it. When they do learn, the adaptation to guns is chilling. An 11-year-old California girl, fearful of her father's punishment because she was caught smoking, wrote this suicide note: "I wanted to grow up and be somebody ... but I messed up ... Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you I used the gun -- yours. I'm sorry you don't have a daughter anymore."