On Monday, three days after Christmas, the 4-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 USA.
That works out to about five accidental shootings by children each week this year. Of those, 83 resulted in death: The underage shooters killed themselves 41 times and other people 42 times. The tally only includes accidental shootings. It does not include homicides by teens and suicides.
The shootings usually seem to happen when a child finds an unsecured gun at home, like William did. One hundred forty-eight 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 by accident or teens playing with guns recklessly, as data 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.
Alcorn stressed that the 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does tally unintentional gun deaths among children. But investigations by The New York Times and others 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.’’
As the title of Everytown’s report implies, the 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.