Early Monday morning, a 2-year-old Minnesota child was shot in the head and critically wounded when gunfire erupted from an alley near her home in St. Paul. On June 11, another 2-year-old, Laylah Washington, was shot in the head during a road rage incident in Memphis, Tennessee. Three days later, 10-month-old Messiah Marshall was shot and killed in Houston, Texas, while being held in his father’s arms. And two days after that — last Friday — a 4-year-old girl in Spartanburg, South Carolina, was accidentally shot and killed by her 6-year-old sibling.
Gunfire also took the lives of several teenagers in recent days, including a 16-year-old boy in Toledo, Ohio, who was killed after four youths rode up to him on bicycles, brandishing guns.
The carnage that guns do to America’s children is both tragic and unrelenting, as has been documented in several recent studies, including one published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. This new study estimates that each year, nearly 1,300 children aged 0 to 17 in the United States — more than three a day — die from gunshot wounds. Another 5,790 are treated each year for gunshot-related injuries, wounds that leave many of the children disabled for life.
And those numbers are probably underestimates.
The situation is so grim that firearm-related deaths — homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings — are now the third-leading cause of death overall among American children. More children in the United States die from gunshot wounds than from birth defects, heart disease, influenza and/or pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases (including asthma) and stroke.
Firearm-related deaths are also now the second-leading cause of injury-related deaths among children. Only motor vehicles claim more of these lives.
Indeed, 10 percent of all deaths among children aged 0 to 17 are the result of gun injuries. (Please, let that horrific statistic sink in for a minute.)
“The findings underscore the need for scientifically sound solutions to address this important public health problem,” the authors of the study write, with considerable understatement.
The current study, which was conducted by researchers at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, used several national databases that track such things as fatal firearm injuries on death certificates, nonfatal firearm injuries treated at hospital emergency departments, and coroner and medical examiner records.
That data revealed that about 19 children a day, on average, are either killed or medically treated in a U.S. hospital emergency department for a gunshot wound. Boys are especially at risk, accounting for 82 percent of all child firearm deaths and about 84 percent of all nonfatal firearm injuries.
The study also found several racial/ethnic and geographic disparities:
- African-American children have the highest annual average rate of firearm deaths, mostly because they have the highest rate of firearm-related homicides. But the rates of unintentional firearm deaths were also higher among African-American children than among other racial/ethnic groups.
- White and American Indian children have the highest annual average rates of firearm-related suicide — nearly four times higher than the rate for African-American children.
- Child suicides involving either handguns or long guns are much more likely to occur in rural areas than in urban areas.
The need for supervision
Most children who die of unintentional firearm injuries, the study reports, are shot by another child around their own age — and usually when a child is playing with a gun or showing it to others. Older children often mistakenly believed the gun was unloaded or that the safety was engaged.
“This points to the importance of adult supervision and the need to store firearms safely and out of the reach of children,” the study’s authors stress.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which published the journal Pediatrics, believes that “the most effective way to reduce firearm-related injuries and death is to keep guns out of homes and communities.”
In other words, homes without guns are the safest for children.
There is some hopeful news in the study. It found that unintentional firearm deaths among children declined from 2002 to 2014, and firearm homicides declined from 2007 to 2014.
But gun-related suicides among children have shown “a significant upward trend” since 2007, a disturbing development.
Most suicides by children are impulsive acts that occur during a short-term crisis, the study’s authors point out. Because firearm suicide rates have such a high fatality rate, not having guns in the house or, at the very least, storing them safely (unloaded and locked) “can potentially be lifesaving in these instances,” they add.
‘A public health crisis’
As all gun-related deaths are preventable, there’s no way to view the statistics presented in the study as anything but a national tragedy.
“However difficult it may be to confront the problem of firearm injuries in our children, youth, and families, we cannot ignore the magnitude of this ongoing public health crisis,” writes Dr. Eliot Nelson, a pediatrician and member of the AAP’s Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention, in an accompanying commentary.
Yet we continue to ignore it. And more children die, including 4-year-old Bentley Koch, who died Sunday — Father’s Day — after shooting himself in the face with a gun in a home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania.
FMI: You can read the Pediatrics study and the commentary on the journal’s website.