On Monday, three days after Christmas, the four-year-old son of an Alaska state trooper had just returned home from sledding. He was playing by himself in the living room. His mom and grandmother were not far away, in the kitchen, the Alaska Dispatch News reports.
But somehow the boy, William Anderson, found a gun belonging to his father. The gun went off and killed William.
This type of thing happens more than it should. At least 265 children under the age of 18 picked up a firearm and accidentally shot themselves or someone else with it in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
That works out to about five accidental shootings by children each week this year. Of those, 83 ended in death: The underage shooters killed themselves 41 times and other people 42 times. It's important to note that this tally only includes accidental shootings. It doesn't include homicides by teens and suicides.
The shootings usually seem to happen when a kid finds an unsecured gun at home, like William did. 148 of the shootings happened at the victim's house, 31 more happened at a friend's house, and another 28 happened at the home of a family member.
The shooters tend to be toddlers or young kids firing guns completely on accident or teens playing with guns recklessly, as this chart from Everytown shows.
It's unclear whether these numbers are going up or down, because this is the first time these figures have been tallied. "This is the first attempt at making an account at this scale and this degree, and we as an organization started doing it this year," said Ted Alcorn, Everytown's research director, in an interview.
Alcorn stresses that this number is an undercount. They spend time verifying each shooting via news reports and follow-ups with law enforcement. There are about 30 more shooting cases that they're still working on verifying for the year, he said.
The CDC does tally unintentional gun deaths among children, for instance. But investigations by the New York Times and other groups have found that these numbers are typically undercounted, sometimes drastically, due to idiosyncrasies in how coroners and medical examiners keep their records.
"We wanted to look more deeply at what happens when children get access to firearms, and then harm someone unintentionally," Alcorn said. "If a child gets harmed with a gun and gets medical care and survives, we should be just as concerned with that as with one that is fatal."
Taken in isolation, the individual narratives of each incident compiled by Everytown read like freak accidents:
- Jacob Allan, 13, was walking down the stairs of his grandmother's house with his hunting rifle when he tripped and fell, causing the gun to discharge, shooting him in the head. He was taken to a local hospital and died later that day.
- A pair of grandparents were babysitting their three-year-old grandson when the boy found a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun on a nightstand next to the bed he was napping in, and shot himself in the head with it. He died two days later at an area hospital.
- A three-year-old girl was trying to get a snack out of a cabinet at her father's house when a handgun that was stashed on the shelf fell and discharged when it hit the floor, shooting the girl in the stomach. The girl was taken to a local hospital and died a few hours later.
But as the title of Everytown's report implies, these shootings and injuries aren't complete accidents. Prior research by the group found that proper gun storage — locked up and unloaded — could prevent 70 percent of accidental shooting deaths of children.
Smart regulation can help. "Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have some laws on the books that, to varying degrees, hold gun owners criminally liable if children access their guns," Everytown reported last year.
And research suggests these laws work: A 2005 study found that child access prevention (CAP) laws in 10 states prevented 829 injuries in 2001, saving $37 million in medical costs. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 found that CAP laws prevented 333 teen suicides between 1989 and 2001.
Even more important than the legislation, though, is the change in societal norms that comes with it. "In the end, it's much more important that communities, parents, and gun owners just adopt a slightly different perspective around how they store firearms to make sure they're safe," Alcorn said.
Finally, Alcorn points out that data are limited on these shootings because of a Congressional rule that restricts the CDC from conducting research that can be construed as advocating for gun control. Up until 2004, for instance, the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance survey asked people about whether they kept firearms at home and if they were locked up.
But now, "the CDC no longer tracks that. As part of the fallout of the attacks on CDC by Congress, they ultimately withdrew those questions and have not asked them in the last 10 years," Alcorn said. "This is a continued blind spot on the most important way to reduce these injuries and deaths — which is to change the norms around how people store firearms."