(CNN) - Fewer Americans are likely to own a gun now than 40 years ago, but those who do are more likely to own handguns over rifles or shotguns. As the proportion of those with handguns has increased, so has the number of children under the age of 5 who are dying from firearm injuries, according to a new study.
"We are concerned that children are dying from preventable reasons and wanted to study ways to keep this from happening," said Kate Prickett, a family sociologist and demographer at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and lead author of the study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Prickett and her team used previously collected national statistics to estimate the number of children under 5 who died as a result of a firearm injury from 1976 to 2016, as well as the number of families who owned guns and the types of guns they owned.
Over the 41 years in the study, the proportion of families with young children who owned firearms decreased from 50% to 45% for white families and from 38% to 6% for African-American families.
In white American households, handguns went from 49% of the total guns owned in 1976 to 72% in 2016. This increase was associated with a doubling of child deaths from firearms over the past decade, partially explaining it, according to the study.
The authors said they did not have enough data to make reliable conclusions on the trend for African-American families, in whom the rates of child mortality after firearm injuries are typically higher despite lower rates of gun ownership.
Child deaths from firearms peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s and were on the decline until 2001, the study says. The rates have started to increase again, nearly doubling over the past decade from 0.36 per 100,000 children ages 1 to 4 to 0.63 per 100,000.
The authors explain that handguns are often purchased for personal protection and are therefore more likely to be stored loaded, unlocked and left in a more accessible place. Almost 5 million children live in homes where at least one firearm is stored loaded and unlocked, according to a 2018 study in the journal Urban Health.
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a general pediatrician and chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children's Hospital, said the study comes as a reminder that we live in an environment that is still not as safe for kids as we want it to be.
"We know from data that we can't just tell our kids to not touch, that even when they know not to touch, they do anyway," said Swanson, who was not involved in the new research. "And they die more often because of this beautiful innocence and curiosity when there is a firearm in the mix."
As for what parents who choose to have a firearm in the home can do, Swanson is clear.
"It cannot be stored in a place that a child can access, and it should not be stored loaded," she said. "We cannot trust children not to explore the firearm or to even understand how it works and how lethal it is."