Two teens, one with a handgun, exit a vehicle to go hunting. A 10-year-old and his brothers play “cops and robbers” with their father’s rifle. A 15-year-old starts taking selfies with a gun.
In other cases, children find guns lying around a table, a bed, or in the car of their father – a police chief.
In all of these Wisconsin cases, someone ended up hurt, or worse.
“If you’re carrying a firearm and you have kids around, you have to be really, really vigilant about where you’re keeping it,” said Dr. Mike Levas, an emergency department physician at Children’s Wisconsin hospital. “Young kids will play with a gun. They’ll play with anything.”
Using reports from police, media, government and nonprofit agencies, the Journal Sentinel identified 108 accidental shootings involving children from 2016 through October 2023.
Although rare, such incidents in Wisconsin appear to have increased since 2020, when the pandemic began. And the vast majority of those injured or killed are children.
Here's what we know:
Accidental shootings by children in Wisconsin appeared to rise during the pandemic
From 2016 through 2019, there were at least 48 accidental shootings involving children and nine deaths in Wisconsin, according to the Journal Sentinel database. In the nearly four years since then, the state has seen at least 60 incidents and 16 deaths.
The increase is felt mostly in Milwaukee, where incidents have doubled. In the pre-pandemic years, at least 16 incidents were reported, compared to 36 in the nearly four years since.
The figures do not capture accidental shootings by children that were not reported to law enforcement or by media.
“Unfortunately, I’m not terribly surprised to hear those statistics,” said Nick Matuszewski, the policy manager for the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort. “Since 2020, there’s been a notable rise in gun deaths across the board.”
Of the 25 people who died from accidental shootings in Wisconsin from 2016 to now, all but one were minors and just over half were 9 years old or younger.
At least 86 other people were also injured, all but five of them minors.
The average age of the shooter was 12 years old, though they ranged from as old as 78 to as young as 1.
Accidental shootings are also elevated nationwide
From 2015 to 2022, Wisconsin had the 13th highest rate of unintentional shootings by children, at 7.3 per 1 million children, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, an advocacy group in favor of stricter gun laws. The U.S. average is 4.8 shootings per 1 million children.
Nationwide, Everytown For Gun Safety identified 2,900 accidental shootings by children between 2015 and 2022, an average of 362 a year. The group’s analysis found an increase in 2020 and a peak year of 414 accidental shootings in 2021. The number of accidental shootings dropped in 2022 but remained elevated.
Overall, accidental shootings remain rare. On average, guns claim the lives of more than 700 people in Wisconsin annually, the majority by suicide. Yet for every 100 fatal shootings statewide, just one is accidental, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of state health data.
Other types of firearm-related deaths and injuries have also climbed in the U.S. since 2020. That same year, firearm-related injuries surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death for people between 1 and 19 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Criminologists, gun safety advocates and hospital workers have consistently said that a local and nationwide surge in shootings, homicides and suicides since 2020 is affecting all kinds of communities – not just urban centers like Milwaukee.
“The general population narrative is that oh, it’s a city problem and that’s not true,” Levas said. “It’s a U.S. problem.”
Weekends and the summer are the most common times for accidental shootings
The analysis of 2,900 accidental shootings by Everytown for Gun Safety identified several patterns involving accidental shootings:
The two age groups most likely to unintentionally shoot themselves or others are those between the ages of 14 and 17, followed by those ages 5 and younger.
Accidental shootings involving children are more likely to happen in the summer and on weekends, when children are most likely to be at home.
More than 7 in 10 accidental shootings by children occurred in or around a home.
Many factors, including increased gun sales, contribute to accidental shootings
A number of factors contribute to accidental child shootings, including poverty and chronic and traumatic stress. Experts have said the pandemic, which kept families at home more often, and ballooning gun sales at the same time may have contributed to the increase starting in 2020.
According to Matuszewski, Levas and others, a big factor in the rise in accidental shootings is increased access to guns.
An estimated 22.6 million guns were sold in the U.S. in 2020, the highest level in a decade, according to SafeHome.org. While sales fell in the two years afterward, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Among those buying guns since 2020 are many first-time owners, Matuszewski said.
“The more guns we have in society, the more chances there are for (these tragedies) to occur,” he said.
Safe storage can reduce accidental shootings, experts say
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the most effective way to prevent unintentional shootings is the absence of guns in homes. The likelihood of an accidental death by a gun is four times higher in homes with guns.
For homes that do have them, safe storage is paramount, the organization said.
There is evidence that laws requiring gun owners to secure firearms when they are not in their possession have results.
A study published in 2020 examined child access prevention laws in 25 states between 1991 and 2016. It found the laws reduced unintentional firearm deaths by 12%, firearm homicides by 15%, firearm suicides by 12% and overall firearm deaths by 13%. More stringent forms of the law were associated with a 59% drop in unintentional firearm deaths.
Wisconsin's safe storage law only penalizes adults if they leave a gun within reach of a child younger than 14 who does not have permission to have a gun, and the result is great bodily harm or death to the child. It is a misdemeanor.
Legislation that would encourage better storage in Wisconsin has languished at the state Capitol.
Earlier this year, Gov. Tony Evers included in his state budget bill a provision that would create tax exemptions for the sale of gun locks and safes. That provision was removed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, but has since been reintroduced as separate legislation. Thirty-five Democrats and four Republicans have signaled support for it.
In October, a package of five bills focusing on safe storage was announced by three Democrats: Rep. Lisa Subeck, Sen. Chris Larson and Sen. Lena Taylor.
Smart guns have also been identified as a potential solution to accidental discharges, if they are widely adopted. The technology requires a thumb scan or passcode, like a smartphone, for the gun to operate.
“The idea of smart guns is something that I think would be lifesaving for kids,” Levas said.
Where to find free gun locks in Milwaukee
Milwaukee residents can obtain free gun locks at the following locations for the United Neighborhood Center of Milwaukee:
United Neighborhood Center of Milwaukee's home office1609 W. North Ave.Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and as needed.
City on a Hill2224 W. Kilbourn Ave.At health outreach events the second Saturday of each month.
Milwaukee Christian Center807 S. 14th St.Monday through Thursday 1 to 3 p.m.
Neighborhood House of Milwaukee2819 W. Richardson PlaceDaily from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m., plus Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.
Neu-Life Community Development2014 W. North Ave.As requested.
Silver Spring Neighborhood Center5460 N. 64th St.As requested.
How to safely store guns
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, roughly a third of U.S. homes with children have guns, and even young toddlers are capable of finding unlocked guns and are strong enough to pull the trigger.
For those that do have them, the academy recommends guns be locked away and ammunition locked and stored separately. Children and teens should not be able to unlock the boxes that store firearms and guns that are loaded and unlocked should not be stored in a car or anywhere else on your property.
The academy recommends guns be unloaded any time they are set down.
Marquette student researcher Ben Schultz contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Accidental child shootings in Milwaukee appear on the rise since 2020