Q&A: A preventable Tragedy (Children and Firearms)

There seems to be a trope that when a child plays with a gun they end up shooting themselves or someone else. But how about writing when they do so, can they hurt themselves because of recoil or got their fingers caught in the slide? That never tends to happen, but that is totally possible right? Or at least combined with shooting themselves/someone else? Though I can get recoil/slide injuries being ignored and waysided by the seriousness of getting shot.

That’s not a trope, that happens. Roughly thirteen hundred children die from gunshot wounds in the United States each year. Somewhere just under six thousand are treated for (and survive) gunshot wounds. Now, only about 6% of those deaths (and, I assume the injuries as well) are accidental (the rest are a mix of homicides, suicides, and assaults.)

There are a non-trivial number of non-self inflicted, accidental firearms injuries and deaths where the shooter is a younger child.

If I seem hostile, here’s my problem, this isn’t “a trope,” this isn’t, “a plot contrivance.” This is something actually happens in the real world. Much like drunk driving, it is something where it tends to be more lethal in fiction than reality, and I’m fine with that.

Much like drunk driving, these shootings occur, more often than not, from adults being irresponsible, and there is a serious possibility that someone will end up dead.

Note that I did not say the victim’s parents are responsible. In the US, roughly 40% accidental firearms deaths occur at a friend’s house. (Strictly speaking, I’m being a little more general with this, the exact statistic is 40% of unintentional shooting deaths in the 11-14 age bracket.)

So, what do you do? Secure the gun. Do not “just” hide it. Hiding is insufficient, as roughly 3:4 children know where those firearms are concealed in their house.

Securing a gun means, get a gun safe. It doesn’t matter if you have a handgun, or a full arsenal. Get a safe. This goes beyond just the risk of a child getting their hands on the gun, as it also protects the firearm from theft.

Get and use a trigger lock. Yes, this is a belt and suspenders kind of situation, but it doesn’t hurt to do both. Especially if your safe is combination locked.

Store the ammunition separately from the gun, and keep that secure as well. This is just basic gun safety, but still. Also keep your ammo in a cool, dry location, as cartridges tend to degrade over time if subjected to humidity and temperature extremes.

Go by what the TSA says: If it fires a projectile, it is not a toy. That includes 6mm airsoft, 4.5mm air guns (including BB guns) and paintball. These are not toys, and there is a real danger of permanent injury from mishandling. (Fun trivia, I have actually checked an airsoft pistol through airport security. It was treated like a live firearm. I had to fill out all the paperwork, and storage had to comply with TSA regulations.)

Do not assume that a child will not play with a gun, or that they, “know better.” They will play with it. Guns are mistaken for toys in roughly 16% of accidental shootings where the victim is a child.

I said, I’m okay with shootings like this being presented as more lethal than they are in fiction. What I’m less okay with is the disproportionate representation of this as, “accidental shootings.” Most of the time, when a child is shot, they either did it to themselves intentionally, or were intentionally shot by someone else. As I mentioned earlier, only about 6% of firearms deaths among children arise from accidents. The scenario where a kid is playing with a gun, and doesn’t realize it’s not a toy is vanishingly rare. More often, and horrifyingly, they use the gun as designed.

Stepping away from kids entirely, there are a number of minor ways you can injure yourself while operating firearms.

The firearms community has the wonderful term, “Beretta bites,” which refer to injuries on the thumb, resulting from having the slide recoil into that digit during firing. (This will happen with most semi-auto handguns if you try to keep your thumb on the hammer while firing.) Usually, this refers to a specific pair of chunks taken out of each side of the thumb, and it’s immediately recognizable.

In most cases, these are going to be minor injuries. The kind of cuts you’d either allow to clot on their own, or throw a bandaid over. However, in some cases, these can be deep enough to requires stitches.

I’ve never seen anyone get scuffed from having their hand up by the slide during firing. Generally speaking, you’re not going to put your thumb up next to the ejection port simply because of the ergonomics. The way most handguns are designed, it’s more comfortable to put your thumb in line with your index finger. (If you do pull it back, you’ll end up behind the hammer and we have Beretta bites.) Your index finger and the side of your hand shouldn’t be near the slide, because your index finger would be on the trigger. (Technically, you could pull the trigger with your middle finger, but I doubt many inexperienced users would preferentially do this.)

It is possible to injure your offhand if you hold the gun incorrectly. There’s a lot of potential grips here, where, someone who didn’t know what they should hold onto could be hurt. Weaver and Teacup are the most likely grips, but those are pretty safe. Someone trying to emulate what they saw from John Wick could actually mess up their stabilizing hand by wrapping it around the slide. (Don’t do this.)

It’s also possible to snip your fingertips when the action is closing on some firearms. Dismantling some firearms can be hazardous if you’re don’t know what you’re doing, and I can think of a few handguns that can open up your fingers during reassembly, if you don’t where to put them. (Though, these are all pretty rare, and most of these are associated with disassembling the gun for maintenance, something that an inexperienced user is unlikely to attempt.)

Beyond that, it’s quite easy to burn yourself on a recently used firearm, if you don’t know which parts are safe to touch. (The severity of the burn will scale based on how hot the gun got, and how long contact persisted. This isn’t a serious medical issue in most cases, but you can easily suffer minor burns without much effort.)

It wouldn’t happen to a child, but you can pinch your fingers when you’re loading a magazine into some models of firearms. If the mag’s floorplate sits flush with the base of the grip, be careful. (The SIG Pro 2022 is on my shit list for the sheer number of times has clipped my pinky during reload. I eventually learned to either point my pinky straight away from the gun during a mag change, or completely shift my grip on the pistol during a reload.) The P99, and USP are both guilty of this as well. Oddly I’ve never had an issue with a Glock doing this to me. Even the 33, which uses the floorplate to add additional grip length (the exact same thing the SP2022 does.) Worth noting, every pistol mentioned in this paragraph has a polymer frame. It can hurt, it can raise a blood blister, but I’ve never had them draw blood from a fast mag change. (Also, for the record, I put an unnecessary amount of power into my reloads, I blame the 1911 I learned on. This is entirely a function of how much force the shooter uses when inserting a fresh mag.)

Shell casings can end up in unpleasant places. Again, you’re not likely to suffer serious injury this way, but you can end up with burns if it becomes wedged in your clothing, especially if the gun was under heavy use. (It’s the same thing, the risk of a serious burn is almost non-existent, but it can happen.) The only incident of scarring I’ve ever heard of from shell casings came from a service member who ended up with spent brass wedged under their armor in combat. That said, I have had a Ruger M9 knockoff throw casings at my eyes with enough force to damage my glasses. Eye protection is important.

One final consideration of injuries that absolutely can be sustained is hearing loss. Even under ideal circumstances, if you’re not using any ear protection around firearms, you will suffer some damage, and experience symptoms like ringing and headaches from prolonged gunfights. Again, if you’re going out on the range, wear ear protection.

One final danger can be easily overstated, but is worth remembering. Failure to control recoil on fully automatic firearms. There was a famous incident on August 25, 2014, where a 9 year old girl, at a Nevada shooting range lost control of a 9mm Uzi killing Charles Vacca, her shooting instructor. I’ve run across a handful of other similar stories over the years, including a military instructor in a former Soviet state, where one of his recruits had been messing around with his AK, lost control of the recoil and put a round through his head. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, seriously, full-auto is not a toy. It can be fun, but it’s not something you should ever hand to an inexperienced shooter. The risk something going wrong (however minor) is significantly higher.

If you get shot, triage isn’t going to care if you’ve got some minor bruising on your hand. That won’t kill you. There’s a lot of minor injuries that you can sustain from operating firearms, in most cases these don’t even rise to the level of complaining about it in the moment. If you’re bleeding it, clean it and throw something (sterile) on to stop the bleeding. You don’t want the chemical residues getting into the wound (even if it isn’t particularly dangerous.)

Of course, if you’re shooting recreationally and injured, stop and deal with it. Don’t just ignore it.

If you have kids, and you have firearms in your life, you need to take steps to ensure that you keep them separate, and the kids do not get access to the guns except under your direct supervision. It is your job to educate them.

At the same time, it is also vitally important for you to know if your children’s friends have access to firearms. Like I said, roughly 40% of children who are killed, die at a friends house. With that in mind, it is reasonable to require those weapons are properly secured and stored.

So, the short answer is, yes, adult or child, you can suffer minor injuries from operating a gun as intended. You can also hurt yourself in a multitude of ways that have nothing to do with being struck by a bullet.

-Starke

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