Commentary: Relax, Ontario, especially the media: our kids are not gunning each other down every day
Despite what you may have read or heard on the news this morning, if you’re a parent in Ontario, your child is probably not going to be shot today. Sadly, your media seems set on convincing you otherwise.
A new study came out Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. It reported that over a five-year period (2008-2012), an average of 355 “youths” in Ontario were injured or killed in firearms-related incidents per year, or almost one per day. (Suicides apparently excluded.) It was full of interesting information and findings — a good piece of scholarship. But how it was reported in the media got it largely wrong, certainly in terms of tone. Because the survey, while certainly telling tragic tales, isn’t nearly as alarming as is being portrayed, and the best solution to the problem — and there is one — isn’t likely to find much public support.
Let’s recap the media coverage. “1 injury a day from firearms in Ontario, pediatricians find,” was the headline on the CBC. “A young person is shot every day in Ontario, Sick Kids study finds,” was how the Toronto Star put it. “Every day a child or youth is injured by gun violence in Ontario, study warns,” was how my colleagues here at Global News summed up the findings. The radio and TV coverage I heard or saw was similar.
These headlines are accurate, in the narrowest technical sense of “not being wrong.” But they also miss a huge part of the data. The headlines and articles bring to mind the horrible stories we hear of children goofing off, finding a loaded gun under a bed or in a closet, and killing or injuring themselves or another child. But those horror stories aren’t really what the study authors found in Ontario.
The study looks at five years of Ontario “youths.” And it also includes those injured and killed by deliberate shootings — crimes — which are about a quarter of the total (and that’s important to know, but it’s also a separate issue, requiring its own study and solutions). When just looking at the accidents, the tracking covers a much wider age range than you’d expect: up to an age of 25. That’s … a rather expansive definition of youth. Sure, a 24-year-old is still young, in the sense of being in the prime of their life. But they’re also adults.
This matters, but all the reports missed it — not just in the headlines, but in the actual reports. I’ve read a half dozen of these news stories. This isn’t mentioned in any of them.
The researchers, for their part, didn’t miss it. They break down the “youth” group into two categories — those under the age of 16 and those over it. But the media reports treated all youths equally, painting a picture of Ontario school children coming home every day lucky to have literally dodged a bullet.
There’s no excuse for this. The numbers are right there in the study, in Table 2, to be precise. And they tell a story that’s still tragic, but not, alas, all that surprising. It turns out that most “youths” killing or injuring themselves in accidents with guns are, in fact, adolescent males and young men. Vastly so. In the five-year period covered by the study, 312 children below the age of 16 were injured or killed in accidental shootings in Ontario, or just over 60 a year (roughly one a week). Meanwhile, the total number of Ontario “youths” who were older than 16 injured or killed in comparable incidents was a whopping 1,017 over five years — not quite four a week. Roughly 77 per cent of those killed or injured in accidental shootings over the course of the study were older than 16. Though the data isn’t detailed enough for me to prove this, I’d bet most of the rest, those under 15, were quite close to turning 16.
Canada has fairly tight gun control laws, and a big part of Canada’s gun control regime is focused on so-called “safe storage” of firearms — keeping guns locked away, disabled and separate from ammunition. I’m a gun owner: rifles, shotguns, pistols, you name it. I’m also a father. And I am 100 per cent compliant with these regulations not just because it’s the law, but because I’m a responsible dad. If there are compliance issues with other gun owners in Canada, that’s where the attention should be focused. It would save lives — young lives, most especially.
But what the hell do you do with someone who’s 17, or 19, or 24? By this time, it’s not just a matter of them probably knowing where their parents’ guns are stored. We could very well be dealing with “youths” injured or killed by their own guns — the age for owning a gun in Canada is 18. We’re not talking about curious toddlers grabbing daddy’s loaded 9 mm by the trigger, with tragic consequences. We’re talking adults, or damn near to it, who really should know better.
And the good news is, they can know better. Guns aren’t magic. Anyone, of any age, can be taught how to safely handle a firearm. Show me any gun and I’ll show you how to render it utterly harmless in less than 30 seconds, with zero risk to you or anyone else. (Assuming you choose to touch it at all, of course, which 99 per cent of the time, there’ll be no reason to do — just call the police.)
We could teach basic gun safety to high school students easily. The police could do it. Local gun clubs could do it. Firearms safety instructors, who supervise and co-ordinate the gun safety classes one must pass before receiving a permit to purchase or possess a gun, could do it, and are already in place in every community across the country.
Won’t happen, though. If you thought today’s headlines were bad, imagine how the Star and CBC and perhaps even Global would react to gun safety being taught in high school. “GUNS IN OUR SCHOOLS, PARENT GROUPS OUTRAGED” sounds about right. But for the nearly 80 per cent of Ontarians under 25 accidentally injured or killed with a gun between 2008 and 2012, the knowledge could have saved their life. The best way to fight youthful impulsiveness and ignorance is by providing good information and skills. We do it with sex, we do it with drugs and alcohol, we try to do it with driving. Why not guns?
In the final analysis, though every death and injury is a tragedy, firearms are not a huge public health issue in Ontario or Canada generally. Look at the numbers. There are 300,000 restricted guns (mainly handguns) in Ontario. There are literally millions of the more common hunting rifles and shotguns (precise figures are unavailable due to the scrapping of the long gun registry, but there were more than two million such guns in Ontario in the last year for which data is available). Even so, we’re still talking only a literal handful of deaths and injuries a week, many of which are likely due to recklessness, and most of which could be prevented with better education. Meanwhile, leading causes of death and injuries for Canadian children (0-18) remain the same as ever: motor vehicle accidents, drowning, falls, and, for those under four, suffocation.
Guns don’t even register. They are a rounding error of hundreds in a province of more than 13 million. Ontarians need to keep perspective on this — starting with the media.