Quick, what’s the difference between a gun and a swimming pool?
Don’t answer that. It’s a stupid question. Anyone with a grade school education — or even no education — should be able to tell the difference between the two. However, there continues to be this comparison between guns and swimming pools in trying to justify the refusal of any type of reasonable gun control. The argument goes like this:
More children die from accidental drownings in swimming pools each year than from accidental or intentional shootings. Thus, swimming pools are more dangerous, yet parents and politicians do not rally to ban swimming pools. As a result, parents and politicians who want to outlaw guns but not pools are hypocrites who want to trample on the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
It seems reasonable, right? If something kills more children than the other thing, then the something needs to be dealt with. If you looked at the simple numbers, you should get rid of pools and save all those children.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it lacks the thorough analysis that something so serious deserves. But, in order to have a serious analysis and an honest discussion, we need to not talk past each other. We need to have a reasonable discussion. Unfortunately for us, there are too many people on both sides of the gun control debate who are fanatical in their views. They won’t compromise. They won’t talk. For way too many of them, it’s either ban all guns outright or arm everyone to the teeth.
So what is the truth? Are swimming pools more dangerous than guns?
The answer is not easy, but I think you already knew that. First, let’s look at guns. Firearms are designed to kill things. You don’t go into a gun shop and ask for a gun that just maims. (You could, but you’d be laughed out of the shop… Or offered a taser or something non-lethal like that.) Injuries from firearms are permanent and many times deadlier than if you accidentally fall into a swimming pool. That is, falling into a pool without the ability to swim doesn’t guarantee your death. Shooting yourself in the head does. Pull the trigger, and there’s no going back.
Next, let’s look at swimming pools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day.” Of those ten per day, one-fifth were children under the age of 14. That’s about 706 children dead, on average, during that time period. On the other hand, during the same period, there were an average of 4,525 unintentional injuries from drowning/submersion. (The source for these data is this database.)
For every drowning death, there are 4.5 non-fatal drowning/submersion injuries in children under the age of 14.
As with all data, you have to remember that these are reported cases. There are times when fatal drownings are not reported for a variety of reasons. The same goes with injuries. As we move onto injuries from guns, the same kind of reporting bias is at play, and it is very hard to determine the true effect of these biases. You also have to be aware that the rates you see up there are crude rates. To get a better sense of the rate, you need to adjust for age… Which I won’t do because it’s too technical for the purposes of this blog.
So how about the firearm death-to-injury ratio?
From this database we see that there were 8,797 non-fatal injuries from firearms in children under age 14 between 2005 and 2009. From the same database we see that there were 1,826 fatal injuries from firearms in the same age group and during the same time.
Here, I made a graph:
So, yes, in absolute numbers, guns kill less children and injure less children. Proportionately speaking, however, the two sources of injury and death are the same.
After seeing the data, the discussion should turn to prevention. Gun injuries and deaths can be prevented by simply keeping the guns away from the children or from people who could hurt the children. This is not about taking guns away from responsible people who lock them away, keep the ammo and the gun separate, have guns with special devices to prevent children from playing with them, etc.
Drowning injuries and deaths can be prevented by teaching children how to swim at a early age, having an appropriate fence around swimming pools, looking over children playing in pools or bodies of water of any size, etc. Of course, you will never eliminate drowning deaths in children completely because there will always be lakes, rivers, and oceans for kids to drown in. Likewise, there will always be a child dying from a gunshot because there are some pretty sick people out there who would shoot a child.
To keep having this discussion where we talk past each other is, to be frank, very stupid. There is obviously a problem when a child dies for any cause, and trying to address a cause is not something that people should be faulted for. Likewise, the complete overhaul of a constitutional right can’t be done overnight. So quit comparing pools to guns or guns to pools and get on with the business of saving lives. All lives.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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