Op-ed piece on swimming pools vs. guns as the most dangerous weapon

by Steven D. Levitt, Professor of Economics, University of Chicago

[Editor's note: A version of this piece was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 28, 2001 under the title "Pools more dangerous than guns." ]

What's more dangerous: a swimming pool or a gun? When it comes to children, there is no comparison: a swimming pool is 100 times more deadly.

In 1997 alone (the last year for which data are available), 742 children under the age of 10 drowned in the United States last year alone. Approximately 550 of those drownings -- about 75 percent of the total -- occurred in residential swimming pools. According to the most recent statistics, there are about six million residential pools, meaning that one young child drowns annually for every 11,000 pools.

About 175 children under the age of 10 died in 1998 as a result of guns. About two-thirds of those deaths were homicides. There are an estimated 200 million guns in the United States. Doing the math, there is roughly one child killed by guns for every one million guns.

Thus, on average, if you both own a gun and have a swimming pool in the backyard, the swimming pool is about 100 times more likely to kill a child than the gun is.

Don't get me wrong. My goal is not to promote guns, but rather, to focus parents on an even greater threat to their children. People are well aware of the danger of guns and, by and large, gun owners take the appropriate steps to keep guns away from children. Public attitudes towards pools, however, are much more cavalier because people simply do not know the facts.

It takes thirty seconds for a child to drown. Infants can drown in water as shallow as a few inches. Child drownings are typically silent. As a parent, if you let your guard down for an instant, a pool (or even a bucket of water) may steal your child's life.

The Consumer Products Safety Commission offers a publication detailing some simple steps for safeguarding pools (available on the internet at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/359.pdf). The advice is mostly common sense. Included among the suggestions are installing fences that entirely surround the pool, putting locks on the gates, keeping house doors locked so toddlers cannot slip out of the house unmonitored, and installing power safety covers for the pool.

If every parent followed these steps, perhaps as many as 400 lives per year might be saved. This would be more lives saved than from two of the most successful safety-interventions in recent decades: the use of child car seats and the introduction of safer cribs. Potential lives saved from pool safety are far greater than from child-resistant packaging (an estimated 50 lives saved per year), keeping children away from airbags (less than 5 young children a year have been killed by air bags a year on average since their introduction), flame retardant pajamas (perhaps 10 lives saved annually), or safety drawstrings on children's clothing (two lives saved annually). Simply stated, keeping your children safe around water is one of the single most important things a parent can do to protect a child.

As a father who has lost a son, I know first-hand the unbearable pain that comes with a child's death. Amidst my grief, I am able to take some small solace in the fact that everything possible was done to fight the disease that took my son's life. If my son had died in a backyard pool due to my own negligence, I would not even have that to cling to. Parents who have lost children would do anything to get their babies back. Safeguard your pool so you don't become one of us.

Steven Levitt is a professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and a research associate of the American Bar Foundation. [Editor's note: John Lott has claimed that this op-ed was written for the express purpose of concealing Levitt's "rabidly anti-gun" views. ]

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