American Children Are Injuring Their Eyes at Ridiculous Rates from BB, Paintball and Other Air Guns

Mere weeks after those marathons of “A Christmas Story” have wrapped up, researchers have found that Ralphie’s mom, Miss Shields, and Santa were right—American kids are indeed shooting their eyes out in staggering number with airguns. The results of a 23-year study on eye injuries was published Monday in Pediatrics.

For the last two years data is available, the majority of eye injuries that sent children to the hospitals were related to non-powder guns—a category that would include a Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle as well as BB guns, airsoft guns and paintball guns. Other causes of eye injuries included in the study were basketball, baseball, football and swimming. Over the full 23-year period, basketball was the most common cause of eye injuries, while non-powder guns were only the third most common cause.

About 19,000 children are treated for eye injuries linked with one of these activities each year, according to the paper; 75 percent of the cases included in the studies were boys’ eye injuries. (That proportion was even higher for injuries involving non-powder guns; boys made more than 90 percent of the trips to the emergency room related to those guns.)

trade show air soft Mark Hsieh (L) and Melissa Oaki (R) play the Shooting Box simulation game using Airsoft rifles as Kenny Suh (C) looks on at a 2012 trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Non-powder gun eye injuries seemed to climb beginning in 2003, according to one graph included in the paper. Though the number of these injuries increased by about 170 percent between 2011 and 2012, the overall number is still lower than it was at its peak in 2006, when nearly six children per every 100,000 in the United States reported a non-powder gun-related eye injury. The figure for 2012 was about 4.5 per 100,000 children. 

If anything, the paper notes, researchers may have underestimated the actual number of injuries because the data only came from hospital emergency departments, not from other clinics.

Most eye injuries didn’t require children to stay in the hospital for long; only about 4 percent of the children with reported injuries were admitted to a hospital. However, injuries involving a non-powder gun were about eight times as likely to need to be hospitalized. (No statistics about the ultimate fate of affected eyes were available, though the authors note that severe vision loss happens in about 7 percent of sports-related eye injury cases.)

"The severity and increasing rate of eye injuries associated with nonpowder guns underscore the need for special preventive efforts directed toward this source of pediatric eye injury," the authors wrote.

Ralphie, though fictional, was fortunate to not be among them after very nearly shooting his eye out. (The paper notes that "it is important for children to be taught to shoot BB and pellet guns at paper or gel targets with a backstop that will trap BBs or pellets and prevent ricochet." Whoops.) But while Ralphie was wearing glasses, they were almost certainly did not meet the standards set out for the kind of eye protection recommended American Academy of Pediatrics when people are using these kinds of weapons. Those goggles, the organization states, should have a label saying they meet the ASTM's F1776 standards for safety.

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