Toddler-involved shootings are up 50% this year
The data shed some light on the drivers of the pandemic-era rise in gun crime
At least 23 toddlers have shot themselves with firearms in the first few months of 2022, while at least 3 others have shot other people, according to data maintained by Everytown, a gun control advocacy group.
Last week, for instance, a two-year-old boy fatally shot his four-year-old sister while sitting in a car at a gas station in Pennsylania. In March, 22-year-old Dejah Bennet was fatally shot by her three-year-old son after he began playing with a gun he found in the back seat of her car. Also in March, a Tennessee three-year-old shot and killed himself with an AR-15 he found in his uncle’s house.
Shootings involving children under the age of four are up by more than 50 percent relative to the same period last year, according to Everytown’s data. That tally also includes a couple recent shootings that aren’t yet in Everytown’s database. Overall, toddler-involved shootings started to spike in 2020, mirroring the broader increase in gun homicide seen during the pandemic.
In 2021, for instance, at least 87 toddlers shot themselves or other people, up from 49 such incidents in 2019. Note that these tallies, which come primarily from news reports, are almost an undercount: if a shooting doesn’t get reported, it doesn’t appear in Everytown’s database. Relatively minor injuries may not generate a police report or media attention.
Note also that these incidents represent just a tiny fraction of all gun violence in the U.S. In a typical year, for instance, between 10,000 and 20,000 people are killed in gun homicides, with tends of thousands more dying of suicide by firearm. But the toddler shootings are nonetheless useful as a barometer of the sheer ubiquity of firearms in American households — in a nation with this many guns in circulation, shootings which may seem like freak accidents in isolation are virtually guaranteed.
All told since 2015 there have been at least 473 toddler-involved shootings in the United States. They’re not evenly distributed around the U.S: as the map below shows, shootings involving the littlest kids tend to be clustered in the southeast and parts of the Midwest.
Liberal population centers like California and New York have relatively few of these shootings, while states like Michigan, Tennessee, Louisiana and Missouri punch well above their weight population-wise. One likely factor in these state-level disparities: the presence or absence of laws intended to prevent kids from getting their hands on guns, like safe storage and lock requirements. These policies are backed by solid empirical research showing they reduce unintentional deaths and injuries.
The recent increase in these incidents can also help us understand the nationwide rise in homicide that’s been the subject of much media attention. Various explanations for the increase have been offered: general pandemic-era malaise, changes in policing following widespread protests over the killing of unarmed black men, so-called ‘woke’ prosecutors declining to pursue criminal charges, economic factors, and a recent surge in gun-buying.
In the case of the toddler shootings, however, it seems clear that many of these theories simply don’t apply. Pre-schoolers, for instance, generally aren’t the focus of police or prosecutor enforcement actions. And while they may be agents of chaos in general, toddlers’ brains aren’t sophisticated enough to harbor true criminal intent, at least as it’s understood by the American legal system. They also don’t purposefully abuse drugs and alcohol the way teens and adults do, putting a damper on the pandemic malaise theory of increased crime.
On the other hand, more guns in circulation means more opportunities for little kids to find and start playing with them. That may be especially true in a pandemic context, when schools and daycares are shut down and kids are spending much more time at home — potentially unsupervised.