Facts About Firearm Policy Initiative

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MYTH: Unintentional child shootings are mostly committed by adults with criminal records


  • Researcher John Lott claims that most unintentional child shooting deaths are the result of guns fired by adult males in their mid-to-late 20s who have criminal histories.
  • Lott relied on (and continues to rely on) outdated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 1999 to support this claim despite researchers and the CDC acknowledging that the underlying data was a significant underestimate.
  • Recent research has shown that Lott’s research severely undercounts the extent to which children do unintentionally hurt themselves and other children by firing their parents’ guns.

Lott’s Claim:

In a May 24, 2018 op-ed in The Hill, Lott claims, “Relatively few accidental gunshots take place in law-abiding, normal homes; most accidental gunshots resulting in the deaths of minors are fired by adult males in their mid-to-late 20s who have criminal histories. Many are drug addicts or alcoholics. Gunlocks aren’t designed to stop adults from firing their own guns.” He makes the same claim in his 2016 book, The War on Guns, and again in his 2020 book, Gun Control Myths

In 2014, Dr. John M. Leventhal, et al., published an article in the journal, Pediatrics, that found, “[o]n average, 20 US children and adolescents were hospitalized each day in 2009 due to firearm injuries.” The article received media attention from ABC News, to which Lott responded on his website. Lott used a similar response in his 2019 congressional testimony. Lott writes: “These are not little kids who accidentally hurt themselves by firing their parents’ gun. Consider these facts:

  1. 76% of these injured ‘children’ were 17, 18, or 19 years old.
  2. 62% injuries were the result of criminal assaults.
  3. The injuries are overwhelmingly concentrated in large, urban areas.” 

In a May 13, 2013 National Review article, Lott claims, “about two-thirds of these accidental gun deaths involving young children are not shots fired by other little kids but rather by adult males with criminal backgrounds. In other words, unless you send your child to play at a criminal’s home, she is exceedingly unlikely to get shot.”

The Facts:

Contrary to Lott’s claim in his 2018 op-ed, unintentional child shootings are sadly not rare and most are not the result of adult males in their 20s with criminal histories accidentally firing their guns. According to the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance, 120 children under the age of 18 were killed and 175 injured from unintentional child shootings resulting from negligent storage in 2016. In 2017, 132 children were killed and 216 injured as a result of a child gaining access to an unsecured firearm. 

Lott’s claim in his 2020 book that “these are not little kids who accidentally hurt themselves by firing their parents’ gun” is incorrect. Tragically, even toddlers aged three and younger can pull the trigger of a gun. Data from the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance shows that from January 1, 2016 to May 26, 2018, 137 toddlers picked up loaded, unsecured guns and pulled the triggers, resulting in the deaths of 51 children and two adults, and injuring 74 children and nine adults.

An analysis of National Violent Death Reporting System data from 2003 to 2006 by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that two-thirds of fatal, unintentional shootings of children under the age of 14 were committed by other children. When self-inflicted unintentional deaths are included, the figure rises to 74%.

Lott’s Counter:

In response to an op-ed published in The Hill criticizing his original opinion piece, Lott wrote on his website, “Of the fifty-six accidental gun deaths involving children under ten in 1998 and the thirty-one in 1999, only eight and six respectively were shot by another child or themselves. The same statistic for 1997 was only five. — ‘The Bias Against Guns.’” 

In The Bias Against Guns, Lott writes that 31 children under the age of ten in the US died from accidental gun deaths in 1999. “And few of those actually involved a child firing the gun.” In another chapter of the book, Lott writes, “In 1999 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that thirty-one children under age ten died from accidental gun deaths. In cases where the weapon involved could be identified, four of these deaths involved handguns. One suicide with a gun was reported in this age group. When all children under age fifteen are examined, the total number of accidental gun deaths was eighty-eight, sixteen of which involved handguns. Over half the guns were unidentified or classified as ‘other.’ Of children under the age of fifteen, 103 died from gun suicides.” Lott writes in a footnote to this passage, “There is an issue of whether deaths are properly classified as accidental, but this bias frequently appears to err on the side of classifying deaths as accidental.”


As recently as 2018, Lott continued to rely on outdated CDC data from 1999 to support his claim, despite researchers and the CDC admitting the estimate was a significant underestimate. Additional  research has shown that Lott’s numbers severely undercount the extent of the problem of children accessing unsecured guns and accidentally shooting themselves or others. In addition to the Children’s Firearm Safety Alliance and National Violent Death Reporting System data presented earlier in this entry, a 2016 Associated Press and USA Today report found more than 1,000 deaths and injuries from unintentional shootings from Jan. 1, 2014, to June 30, 2016, 90 of whom were 3-year-olds. In sum, Lott severely undercounts the number of unintentional child shootings and misrepresents the nature of the problem by wrongly claiming that criminal adults usually pull the trigger. 


John Lott, “Locking guns won’t do anything to save lives,” The Hill, May 24, 2018
John Lott, The War on Guns, 2016 
John Lott, Gun Control Myths, 2020
John Lott, “Children and Guns: The Fear and the Reality,” National Review, May 13, 2013
Devin Hughes, Beth Roth, and Jen Pauliukonis, “Gun control that works: Safe storage saves lives,” The Hill, May 31, 2018
Evan Filippis and Devin Hughes, “Shooting Down the Gun Lobby’s Favorite ‘Academic’: A Lott of Lies,” Armed with Reason, Dec. 1, 2014
Evan Filippis and Devin Hughes, “The bogus claims of the NRA’s favorite social scientist, debunked,” Vox, Aug 30, 2016
John Lott, “At The Hill Newspaper: Locking Guns Won’t Do Anything To Save Lives,” Crime Prevention Research Center, May 24, 2018
Ryan Foley, “New CDC data understate accidental shooting deaths of kids,” USA Today, Dec. 9, 2016
Ryan Foley, Larry Fenn, Nick Penzenstadler, “Chronicle of agony: Gun accidents kill at least 1 kid every other day,” USA Today, Oct. 14, 2016
John M. Leventhal, Julie R. Gaither and Robert Sege, “Hospitalizations Due to Firearm Injuries in Children and Adolescents,” Pediatrics, February 2014, 133 (2) 219-225; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-1809

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