If a society can be measured by how safe it keeps its kids, then America looks anything but great. Government data and academic research on gun violence show that young people in the United States are at disturbing risk of getting shot — by other children, by their parents, by themselves, by strangers. No space is safe: children are struck by bullets at home, at the park, at school.
So far this year, at least 50 people have been shot or killed on a K-12 or college campus, and the country averaged one school shooting every week, according to a report from CNN. (This includes incidents that took place on school grounds where at least one person was shot, not counting the shooter.) The tally of school shootings includes the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 students and staff dead — a killing spree that made international headlines. It also includes other shootings that soon faded from the national consciousness, like the attack at a high school in Benton, Kentucky, in which two teenagers were shot to death and 14 others were injured.
Drill down into the statistics on gun violence, and the damage becomes even more stark: Nineteen children a day killed or hurt by guns that were too easy to access; more than 187,000 students studying in schools where shots have rung out since Columbine; hundreds of millions of dollars spent on medical treatment to save young lives. But as common as it may be for American children to be struck by bullets, their rates of victimization are not happenstance. Rather, these statistics are the product of our country’s prevalence of firearms (265 million guns in circulation, according to the best available estimate), and pro-gun policies and gun-industry marketing that can lead to unsafe behaviors among adults who possess firearms while raising children.
Nearly 20 American children are shot every day.
On average, 1,300 children die and nearly 5,800 are treated for gunshot wounds each year, according to a July 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As The Trace’s Elizabeth Van Brocklin put it, that’s “at least two Little League lineups worth of children” shot every 24 hours.
The vast majority of gun-violence victims are boys, who comprise 82 percent of those killed by bullets. Homicide rates are disproportionately high among African-Americans; suicide rates are disproportionately high among whites and American Indians.
More children die from guns in the U.S. than in any other high-income nation.
Among wealthy, industrialized countries, 91 percent of children under 15 killed by guns die in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. The same report found that young Americans (ages 15 to 24) are 49 times more likely to die by gunfire than their peers in other high-income countries.
One in three gun-owning families keeps a loaded firearm in the home.
There are no official statistics on gun ownership in the United States, but a 2016 survey of 1,444 gun owners from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health provided one measure of American children’s proximity to firearms. The poll found that 34 percent of families with children under 18 keep guns at home.
Many gun-owning families also store their firearms in ways that can make it easy for children to access them. The same survey found that 45 percent of gun-owning parents reported storing at least one gun in an unsafe manner.
A separate survey of 1,269 gun-owners from the Pew Research Center reached similar conclusions, finding that 44 percent of gun-owning parents say there is a gun at home that is “both loaded and easily accessible to them all of the time when they’re at home.”
Almost 40 percent of parents wrongly believe their kids don’t know where their guns are stored.
Research indicates that some gun-owning parents practice what might be thought of as the “Santa Claus” method of gun safety, believing that they’ve hidden their weapons where their kids couldn’t possibly find them. But just as it is with Christmas presents, children are often on to the hiding spots where parents believe they have secretly stashed their armaments.
Two researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health and San Francisco General Hospital asked mothers and fathers in Alabama a series of questions about guns at home, including whether their kids knew where they stored guns. Then the academics queried the children directly about the whereabouts of guns in their homes, and if they’d ever played with the guns. Researchers found that 39 percent of parents wrongly believed that their kids did not know where guns were kept, and 22 percent were unaware that their children had played with the family’s guns.
Children are likely to play with a gun if they find one.
The National Rifle Association’s approach to child gun safety is Eddie Eagle, an animated bird who delivers lessons to children from pre-K through fourth grade on what to do in case they ever find a gun: “Stop! Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grown-up.”
But as The Trace has previously reported, two separate studies have found the Eddie Eagle program ineffective at producing consistently safe behaviors when children find themselves with a firearm within reach. In one experiment involving more than a dozen 6- to 7-year-olds, when the kids “found” a gun that had been placed in the room by the researchers, only two children steered clear of the weapon.
Only 14 states have laws requiring adults to store guns so kids can’t get them.
As Mike Spies reported for The Trace, 14 states have laws that require adults to take precautions to secure their guns in such a way that children cannot access them. But these laws are rarely enforced, even when children die. An analysis from USA Today and The Associated Press of 152 accidental child-shooting deaths found that only half led to a criminal charge.
In Wayne County, Michigan — one of the jurisdictions that hands out some of the toughest penalties for adults who store their guns negligently — the prosecuting attorney, Kym Worthy, uses other criminal statutes to put parents behind bars when a child fires a gun. “You know children are in your home, and you don’t take the time to store a deadly weapon properly? That’s unconscionable,” she told The Trace in May.
Worthy believes that safe-storage mandates would motivate more adults to keep their firearms locked out of children’s reach, reducing the need for her office to step in.
Each day, more than one child kills himself with a gun.
Suicide accounts for 38 percent of all gun deaths among young people. (For comparison, suicide accounts for about 60 percent of gun deaths across the total population.) About 500 children under 18 kill themselves with a gun every year on average, according to a study from the CDC. Gun suicide among teens has increased 60 percent between 2007 and 2014.
Psychologists and public health scientists believe that many gun suicides by children and teens are impulsive decisions in response to chronic emotional distress; the CDC report found that 71 percent of suicides were thought to have been precipitated by a relationship problem.
There is also extensive research to suggest that “suicidal crises are often short-lived,” according to Harvard’s Means Matter Campaign. A review of 90 studies that followed people who made suicide attempts concluded that about 70 percent of people who tried to kill themselves never attempted suicide again. The impulsive element of suicide is one reason why easy access to guns — which are incredibly lethal — can be so risky. One study of hospital data from eight states found that guns accounted for just six percent of suicide attempts but 54 percent of fatalities.
Every other day, a child kills or wounds another person in an accidental shooting.
The Trace analyzed data collected by the Gun Violence Archive from September 2014 through September 2016 and found that at least 295 children under the age of 13 wounded or killed someone with a gun. In at least 113 cases, the shooter was 3 years old or younger.
In its 2017 study of children and gun violence, the CDC found that most unintentional shootings of kids happen while they are playing with guns they have found. Among accidental gun deaths of children under age 13, the gun was mistaken for a toy in 16 percent of the cases.
Kids are regularly shot in domestic violence incidents.
The casualties of domestic shootings frequently include not only the spouse or partner of the armed abuser, but children who become “collateral victims.” While this distinct category of gun violence is one of the many for which thorough federal data is unavailable, a CDC analysis of a decade’s worth of statistics from 17 states, including Colorado, Georgia, and Massachusetts, provides a clue as to what this carnage looks like on a national level. The agency found that from 2003 through 2013, a total of 179 children under 18 were shot and killed in domestic-violence incidents. Half of those victims were younger than 13.
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Black teenage boys are particularly at risk of being shot to death.
More than 70 percent of all homicides in 2015 were “firearm homicides.” Following that ratio, roughly a third of all of African-American males who die young, between the ages of 15 and 19, are killed by a gun.
In cities like Chicago, where gun violence has spiked in recent years and disproportionately affects black residents, the firearm homicide rate for youth is even higher. According to a database maintained by the Chicago Tribune, 38 children under the age of 17 were fatally shot last year.
Another database covering the Chicago area, maintained by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, found that from August 2014 through January 2018, the most common age to die by gun was 21 — as many as 140 people aged 21 had been fatally shot in that time period.
Five percent of high school students have carried a gun outside the home.
The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey monitors how often young people engage in behaviors that could be harmful to their well-being, like smoking, drug use, eating a poor diet — or carrying a weapon. About one in 20 high school students, or roughly one per the average home room, have carried a gun outside the home, according to the 2015 edition of the annual nationwide questionnaire. The survey also found that nationwide, 5.6 percent of students reporting missing at least one day of school because they were afraid for their safety.
More than 215,000 children have experienced a school shooting.
The number comes from an ongoing Washington Post project exploring childhood exposure to gun violence, and is drawn from incidents occurring in schools serving students in kindergarten through through 12th grade between 1999 and 2017. (The figure doesn’t include children who have witnessed or been part of gun violence outside of school.) In all, at least 164 schools across the country have recorded a shooting on campus over the past two decades.
Medical costs for pediatric gun-related injuries top a third of a billion dollars a year.
In an article published in the journal Hospital Pediatrics, the authors set out to calculate the cumulative hospital tab for gunshot victims aged 21 and younger. Their figures included the costs of patching up patients treated in emergency rooms, and those who died of their wounds. The final figure, as shown below, is staggering.
Just 13 percent of parents have discussed guns with their pediatrician.
Many public health experts believe doctors can play a role in preventing child gun deaths, namely by offering guidance on how to store guns safely, helping parents to understand the risk of injuries and fatalities, and identifying potential warning signs of suicide. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises doctors to discuss gun storage with parents and offers brochures that physicians can display in case they feel uncomfortable bringing up such a sensitive topic.
A survey of more than 1,200 parents of young children found that the majority of parents want to have such conversations. In fact, 71 percent of gun owners said that doctors should offer guidance about safe storage. Seventy-eight percent of non-gun owners agreed. Despite that support, only 12.8 percent of parents said they’d had a discussion with their doctor about guns.
A 2014 study found that the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of doctors believe that gun injuries are a public health problem, but most doctors avoid asking patients about firearms. Dr. Garen Wintemute, a professor at the University of California/Davis School of Medicine, who has studied the issue, told The Trace that physicians believe that they’re not allowed to ask patients about guns, or that they’re afraid to broach such a sensitive topic.
The National Rifle Association has done its part to squelch dialogue about guns between parents and doctors — even going so far as to try to get it outlawed. In Florida, a 2011 statute informally known as “Docs vs. Glocks” barred physicians from asking patients about their firearms. Proponents claimed that asking patients about gun ownership was an infringement of their Second Amendment rights. Doctors could be fined $10,000 or have their licenses revoked for violating the rule.
In February 2o17, a federal appeals court ruled part of the law unconstitutional.
[Graphics: In-House International]