How Often Kids Kill

A 2-year-old accidentally shot his mother Tuesday in Idaho, but no one knows how common such deaths are.

A man shows a girl how to hold an airsoft gun during the NRA Youth Day at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Houston, Texas on May 5, 2013. (Adrees Latif/Reuters/The Atlantic)

It isn't often that a shooting death captures national attention these days. As projects over the last two years by Slate and Joe Nocera demonstrated, there are dozens of gun deaths that go mostly unremarked every day. Even mass shootings fly under the radar of a desensitized nation.

Occasionally, though, a death can genuinely take Americans' collective breath away. One of those happened Tuesday in Hayden, Idaho, where a 2-year-old accidentally fired his mother's concealed pistol in a Walmart, killing her. There are many reasons this particular killing might get such attention: It's the holiday season; the news is slow; the victim, Veronica Rutledge, was a young mother, just 29; it happened at a Walmart, a place with which nearly every American is familiar.

But the obvious difference is the horror of a 2-year-old who, according to news reports, wasn't even aware of what had happened, accidentally killing his own mother. How could such a thing happen? How often does it happen? The answer, as with so many questions about gun violence, is that we simply don't know. There aren't reliable statistics on gun incidents involving kids.

Let's start with Idaho. As The New York Times notes, reporters asked a sheriff's deputy why she would have brought a firearm to shop. “It’s pretty common around here—a lot of people carry loaded guns,” he said. That's at least relatively true: Idaho has one of the highest gun-ownership rates in the nation. Rutledge had a concealed-carry permit, and a report by an anti-gun-control group in July found that the state is near the top for percentage of residents with permits. It's unclear what sort of gun was used or what exactly happened, though police said safety measures were followed. Rutledge's father-in-law said the gun was kept inside a zippered pouch, but the child managed to open it.

Yet it's unclear how often children accidentally shoot people. The Washington Post looked into the question earlier in 2014, after a 9-year-old at a shooting range in Arizona lost control of an Uzi and killed her instructor. Mark Berman found that no agency could give him a clear answer on the matter. While there are often media reports about such deaths, there's no comprehensive database. One can track the number of victims of accidental shootings younger than 18 with some confidence, but it's tougher to track them by who's pulling the trigger.

So, for example, the CDC was able to tell The Post that across 17 states for which they had data, in 2011, there were 11 deaths with a shooter younger than 14. That's something, but it's not especially useful for getting a national picture of anything. For example: Are those numbers from states with high or low gun-ownership rates? How about strict or loose gun-control laws? How many are under 10? What about incidents involving teenagers 14 to 18 years old?

In 2013, The Times took a harrowing look at shootings deaths of children by children and found a similar problem:

A New York Times review of hundreds of child firearm deaths found that accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by the authorities. [Three killings discussed in the story], for instance, were not recorded as accidents. Nor were more than half of the 259 accidental firearm deaths of children under age 15 identified by The Times in eight states where records were available.

As a result, scores of accidental killings are not reflected in the official statistics that have framed the debate over how to protect children from guns.

Research for more than a decade has found that accidental shooting deaths are consistently undercounted.

The upshot of all this is that it's hard to learn any policy lessons from Rutledge's death—in addition to the impossibility of making sense of it on any emotional level. Is the story any more horrible if it's part of a long run of such killings? Or does repetition blur the matter, smudging a personal tragedy into nothing more than a tear-stained statistic?