More Children Are Finding Guns and Shooting Themselves. But Why?

REUTERS/George Frey
A man fires a Taurus Millennium 9mm

A 4-year-old and 7-year-old were playing an innocent game of hide-and-seek Sunday evening in Maryland, when the younger child found not someone, but something: a loaded 9mm handgun. She pulled the weapon, a ghost gun, out from beneath the bed she was hiding under and shot herself in the arm, authorities said.

The incident was one of two in recent days in which police say a child in the Washington, D.C., region came upon such a weapon and shot themselves. The cases highlight two alarming public safety trends nationwide that worry gun safety experts and police: the soaring pervasiveness of homemade, untraceable weapons known as ghost guns and the increase in unintentional shootings by children.

“A 4-year-old is injured, and it could’ve been much worse,” said Prince George’s County Police Chief Malik Aziz after the shooting. “We could be planning a funeral for a 4-year-old right now due to the recklessness and carelessness of an individual who obviously has no regard for such a deadly weapon, even when young children are around.”

Unintentional shootings involving children increased from 340 in 2015 to 411 in 2023 and nearly 1 in 3 unintentional shooters are 5 and under, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

And eight children a day are shot and injured or killed unintentionally by an unsecured firearm in the home, according to Brady United Against Gun Violence.

“Guns are very present in our culture and in our country and in our neighborhoods, and they’re so present, they’re almost omnipresent that we don’t realize one in three Americans has a gun,” said Renee Davidson, the vice president of communications for Brady, who is from the same part of Montgomery County where a 3-year-old was shot in Maryland this week. “We need to act as if those are lethal objects that we need to protect safely, because they are.”

But the issue grows more difficult when the guns are illegal. Law enforcement officials have raised alarms over the expanding prevalence of ghost guns and their use in violent crimes nationwide. Parts for the homemade weapons can be easily purchased online. Once assembled ghost guns are tough for investigators to track after they’ve been used in a crime because they don’t have serial numbers that can often be traced to their last owner like commercially manufactured guns do.

From 2016 to 2021, there were more than 45,200 suspected privately made firearms that law enforcement officials recovered from potential crime scenes, including in nearly 700 homicides or attempted homicides, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

According to Prince George’s County police data, the department has recovered 86 ghost guns so far this year and recovered 115 ghost guns in 2023.

“It’s something that is really concerning for us,” Angela Ferrell-Zabala, executive director of Moms Demand Action, said of ghost guns. “We have someone that should not have access to a firearm that has built one, and on top of that, is not securely storing that firearm.”

Authorities in Maryland announced charges in each of the recent shootings this week.

In Prince George’s County, police arrested Jayvon Thomas, a relative of the 4-year-old girl. Thomas was prohibited from having a gun due to a prior conviction and was on home confinement while facing murder charges in the District, according to court documents. He was charged with multiple weapons offenses in Maryland, including illegally possessing the gun and leaving it unsecured, police said. A Maryland judge ordered him held without bond at the county jail Tuesday.

Thomas is being represented by a public defender, according to online court records. A spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender declined to comment. Attempts to reach relatives of the 4-year-old girl Wednesday were unsuccessful.

In the incident that involved a 3-year-old girl in Montgomery County, investigators believe the child shot herself inside a Montgomery Village apartment, police said. On Wednesday, police said the child was still recovering at a hospital and investigators had found a .40 caliber ghost gun in the home. Montgomery County police charged a 15-year-old, who did not live in the apartment, with possessing ammunition by a prohibited person. Police said the teen, whom authorities did not identify, was released to his parents. The investigation into exactly what happened continues.

Sgt. Chad Bleggi, supervisor of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Firearms Investigations Unit, said that while unintentional shootings by juveniles remain relatively rare, the proliferation of illegal and homemade guns inside residences is putting more children at risk.

“We definitely just have more guns out there than we used to,” Bleggi said.

The proliferation of ghost guns makes it easier for teenagers to get firearms, and up to 40 percent of the illicit guns Montgomery County police are now seizing are privately made firearms, Bleggi said. Montgomery County police have seized 70 this year.

Cassandra Crifasi, co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at Johns Hopkins University, said getting gun owners to safely store their weapons is already a challenge, but those who obtain guns illegally don’t have to follow laws about taking mandatory gun safety classes where such security measures are taught.

Crifasi would like to see communities hold gun storage safety classes at public libraries or other venues with no questions asked about how a participant may have a gun.

“Educating people about how guns should be properly stored – regardless of if the gun owner followed all the rules – is really important,” Crifasi said.

But teens with ghost guns generally don’t want their parents or family to know about the weapons, Bleggi said, which means they have little interest in purchasing a conspicuous gun safe or warning younger family members about the firearm.

“They know they’re not supposed to have it in the first place,” Bleggi said.

Crifasi said that in 90 percent of shootings of minors, the gun used comes from the child’s home or a relative of the child. That was the case in Richneck, Va., last year when a 6-year-old shot and injured his elementary school teacher. In a shooting that drew national attention because of the youth of the shooter, the child’s mother, Deja Taylor, was sentenced to two years after pleading guilty to one county of felony child neglect in state court. She was also sentenced to 21 months in federal court after pleading guilty to one count of being an illegal drug user while possessing a firearm and one count of falsely claiming she did not smoke marijuana on the background check form she filled out when she purchased the handgun her son used in the shooting.

James Ellenson, an attorney for Taylor, had previously said the 9mm Taurus was safely secured on the top shelf of Taylor’s bedroom closet with a trigger lock attached. He said it was unclear how the boy got hold of the weapon before bringing it to school.

But federal prosecutors wrote in a statement of facts filed with the plea deal that investigators found no lock box, trigger lock or trigger lock key during a search of Taylor’s residences following the shooting.

Gun safety experts recommend normalizing asking whether there is an unsecured firearm inside a home.

“Our children are vulnerable,” Ferrell-Zabala said. “We want to make sure that people know it’s not just a ‘one off’ and that this is a responsibility that we all have to keep our children and our community safe.”