FACT CHECK:   In recent years were more preschoolers fatally shot than police officers?

Claim:   In recent years more preschoolers have been fatally shot than police officers.


Examples:     [Collected via e-mail, October 2015]

If that doesn’t make you flinch, consider this: In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.

From: A new way to tackle gun deaths, Oct. 3, 2015 by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Is this true? Or a misrepresentation of stat’s? What about all other years? Is for for the US? Or one state? And exactly “in the line of
duty” mean?

Origins:   A mass shooting that occurred on 1 October 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon, prompted several impassioned editorial columns nationwide about the matter of gun violence. Among the most read was a 3 October 2015 New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof titled “A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths.”

Kristof’s op-ed called for an “evidence-based public health approach” to gun policy, presenting some of the gun debate’s starkest numbers. One assertion in particular grabbed the attention of social media users, much more so than the balance of the column’s content about gun control in general:

When I reported a similar figure in the past, gun lobbyists insisted that it couldn’t possibly be true. But the numbers are unarguable: fewer than 1.4 million war deaths since 1775, more than half in the Civil War, versus about 1.45 million gun deaths since 1970 (including suicides, murders and accidents).

If that doesn’t make you flinch, consider this: In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.

The excerpt resonated with Facebook and Twitter users and was circulated in the form of images and meme graphics:

Kristof likely chose 2013 for purposes of accuracy. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released preliminary data in May 2015 on the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2014, (51, up from 27 in 2013) a finalized report isn’t yet available:

Final statistics and complete details will be available in the Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s publication Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2014, which will be published on the FBI’s website in the fall.

That preliminary release (in anticipation of the FBI’s “Officers Feloniously Killed” report, counting officers who “died from injuries incurred in the line of duty during felonious incidents”) indicated that not all officers who died in the line of duty in 2014 were shot:

Offenders used firearms in 46 of the 51 felonious deaths. These included 32 incidents with handguns, 11 incidents with rifles, and three incidents with shotguns … Twenty-eight of the officers died as a result of automobile accidents, six were in motorcycle accidents, and five were struck by vehicles. Two of the officers were killed from accidental shootings, one from drowning, one from blunt force trauma, and one died as a result of smoke inhalation.

Of the 28 officers who died due to automobile accidents, 15 officers were wearing seatbelts, 10 officers were not wearing seatbelts (six of whom were ejected from the vehicles), and seatbelt use was not reported for three of the officers who were killed due to automobile accidents.

Of the 27 officers counted in FBI statistics as having died in the line of duty in 2013, 26 were killed with a firearm (and one with a vehicle wielded as a weapon). The same report counted 56 officers killed in 2010, 71 in 2011, and 48 in 2012.

While determining how many officers were killed was relatively simple, the use of the word “preschoolers” introduced slight ambiguity. In some instances the term is used to describe children enrolled in preschool, but an equally common application is “all children younger than kindergarten age.” A review of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s 2013 mortality data [PDF, Table 10, “Injury by firearms”] clarified that the latter was referenced: 15 children under the age of one died of homicide by firearm, and 67 between the ages of one and four (for a total of 82, the number widely cited after the Times‘ article).

The CDC reported that 82 children were shot and killed in 2010 [PDF], 86 in 2011 [PDF], and 81 in 2012 [PDF]. Adjusting the age range up to five in CDC records returned a slightly higher number of children’s deaths by firearm: 98 in 2010, 105 in 2011, 91 in 2012, and 98 in 2013.

As such, in 2010 between 82 and 98 preschoolers (depending upon definition of the term) died of injury by firearm, contrasted with 56 police officers killed in the line of duty. In 2011, between 86 and 105 preschoolers were killed, versus 71 officers. By 2012, those numbers shifted to between 81 and 91 preschoolers and 48 officers. And as the Times stated, 27 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2013 (26 of them shot), while in the same year, between 82 (aged four and younger) and 98 (including five-year-olds) children were shot and killed.

As of 14 September 2015, 25 officers had been shot and killed in the line of duty that year in the United States. An accurate and comprehensive tally of the number of children killed by gunfire is not yet available.

As is commonly the case with such statistics however, what’s being compared is absolute numbers (not rates) involving two very different populations. Given that preschoolers greatly outnumber patrol officers in the United States, the value of this statistic considered in isolation is debatable.

Last updated:    9 October 2015

First published:    9 October 2015