Firearm injuries are the second leading cause of death for American children and adolescents, killing more young people annually than cancer, according to a recent study from the University of Michigan. The majority of child gun deaths are homicides — the victims disproportionately kids of color — followed by suicide and accidental shootings. Youth gun suicides in particular are on the rise.
To color in the empty spaces these young deaths leave, The Trace and The Miami Herald worked with more than 200 student journalists across the country to profile young people lost to guns during the 12 months that started with the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last February 14th. In all, the teen reporters identified nearly 1,200 victims, a count that excluded youth who died by gun suicide. They profiled children killed in mass shootings you undoubtedly heard about, but also those whose deaths barely made local news. Together, the stories form Since Parkland, an unprecedented illustration of the toll of gun violence on our country’s kids.
The high rate of child gun deaths is a uniquely American problem. But there are evidence-based solutions that can save lives. We’ve interviewed the experts and engaged with the research. Below, you’ll find the most promising laws and programs to reduce youth gun violence.
Locking Up Guns
One of the most effective ways of keeping kids safe from guns is one of the simplest: requiring people to safely store their weapons. Massachusetts has the most stringent statute, a true “safe storage” law that actually mandates that gun owners lock away firearms, unloaded, when not in use. Three more states impose a similar requirement when the gun owner lives with kids or has another reason to believe that children might be able to access his or her firearms.
Research indicates that safe storage laws work. A survey found that gun owners in Massachusetts are more likely to lock up their guns than their peers in any other state. One study found that in states with safe storage requirements, accidental shooting deaths among children younger than 15 declined by almost a quarter.
Harvard public health scholar Deb Azrael believes storage laws may nudge gun owners to make safer choices. “If you live in a place where the state is explicit and serious about securing firearms, that might lead you to lock up yours,” Azrael said.
Holding adults responsible when kids use their guns
Instead of mandating how weapons should be stored, child access prevention (CAP) laws allow prosecutors to bring charges against gun owners if they allow firearms to end up in a child’s hands.
When the RAND Corporation conducted a massive review of gun policy, researchers found more evidence to support the effectiveness of child access and safe storage laws than any other type of regulation. Academics have found the laws were particularly useful for reducing suicide and unintentional shootings. One study from 2004 found evidence that state child access laws lowered the gun suicide rate among teenagers by 10 percent. Not all child access laws are created equal, however. “There’s a spectrum,” said Andrew Morral, who led the review of gun policy for RAND. Four states hold adults responsible when guns are accessible to children under any circumstances, while seven more penalize adults only if the child actually carries or uses the gun. The think tank didn’t determine which variety of child access laws are most effective. Prosecutors also pursue child access cases unevenly, with one review showing that less than half of child-related gun accidents resulted in prosecution.
Offering therapy and mentorship to young people
In urban neighborhoods, exposure to violence can create a pernicious cycle of trauma and violence. But Chicago has found that group therapy and mentoring can offer a cost-effective way to soothe both the impulses that drive teens to settle disputes with guns and the psychological wounds those shootings leave behind. The Becoming a Man (BAM) program uses cognitive behavioral therapy practices to help young men deal with anger and trauma and slow down their reactions in high-stress situations. It offers weekly group check-ins run by counselors, as well as individual counseling, role playing, and deep-breathing exercises.
When researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab examined the effects of BAM, they found it was associated with a nearly 50 percent drop in violent-crime arrests among participants. One caveat: The positive effects seemed to fade after teens left the program.
Launched in 2001, BAM now works with thousands of students at more than 100 schools throughout Chicago. A few years ago, the program expanded to Boston.
Directing support to people most likely to commit shootings
When law enforcement identify a community’s most violent individuals or likely shooters and invite them to participate in a “call-in,” crime can fall. With the focused deterrence approach, police meet with potential shooters and explain that they are watching them carefully and that any further violence will put them at risk for increased punishment. During the meetings, social services providers also offer referrals to counseling, substance abuse treatment, housing assistance, and job training.
“Most crime is committed by a small group of offenders at a small group of places,” said David Weisburd, a criminologist who’s studied focused deterrence. He added that it’s important to look beyond traditional law enforcement methods to bring wraparound resources directly to the people who need them.
More than 80 American cities have implemented focused deterrence since Boston pioneered it as “Operation Ceasefire” in the 1990s. A recent review of two dozen evaluations found that the strategy was associated with an overall reduction in crime, including a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides and a 44 percent reduction in youth gun assaults in one high‐risk police district.
Removing guns from those in crisis
Ever since the Parkland shooting, laws that allow judges to seize legally owned weapons from gun owners in crisis have gained traction as a way to stop mass shootings. Collectively known as “red flag” laws, the policies can be used when authorities have evidence that a gun owner or someone in the gun owner’s household might harm themself or others.
Only 13 states have red flag laws, most of which were passed after Parkland, and it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions about their effectiveness. But early evidence is promising. One study found that gun seizure laws in Connecticut and Indiana were associated with a decline in suicides. In Maryland, which created its red flag policy after last February’s shooting, police estimated that half the seizures stemmed from calls by family members, and one involved a threat against a school. Similarly, Vermont’s new red flag law may have stopped a school shooting.
Placing age limits on gun purchases
Federal law allows people as young as 18 to buy rifles and shotguns, even though consumers must be 21 to buy a handgun. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, activists pushed fiercely for gun policy change, including laws that would have barred the perpetrator from being able to buy an AR-15 rifle at the age of 19. Soon after the massacre, the state of Florida banned gun sales to anyone under the age of 21. National chain Dick’s Sporting Goods raised its minimum age for gun sales to 21, and a bill to institute a minimum age of 21 for gun purchases was introduced in Congress.
Higher age limits on gun sales are not well studied, especially when it comes to the effect they might have on preventing relatively rare events like mass shootings. RAND’s research review found some evidence that raising the minimum age for all gun sales to 21 could reduce youth gun suicide, though the findings were less robust than studies that bolstered support for child-access laws.
Still, experts believe that raising the minimum purchasing age is a promising policy because of the risks associated with guns in the hands of adolescents. As gun-owning Johns Hopkins public policy professor Cassandra Crifasi wrote for The Trace earlier in February, the cognitive abilities of teenagers as old as 18 are still in development. They may not have the same impulse control as someone only a few years older.
No Evidence It Works
Teaching kids not to touch guns
The National Rifle Association routinely opposes safe storage legislation and other proposals to reduce accidental or child shooting. Instead, the gun group often touts its in-house gun safety program, Eddie Eagle, as an alternative. The cartoon-based curriculum instructs kids to call an adult if they see an unsecured firearm, and to stay away from the weapon.
The problem is there’s no evidence this approach works, and strong reason to believe kids will disregard warnings not to touch guns. One experiment found that children who had received Eddie Eagle instruction said they wouldn’t touch an unsecured gun, but then went ahead and did just that when they found a dummy weapon left accessible by researchers. Some pointed the gun at themselves or others and pulled the trigger. A review by the Government Accountability Office found that gun safety lessons “did not instill consistent safe firearm habits in young children.”