Each day three or four children under age 17 die and an additional 16 are hospitalized from a single cause: gunfire. In fact, according to a new analysis of federal data published in the academic journal Pediatrics, gun violence is the third leading cause of death for American kids between ages 1 and 17, and the second leading cause of injury-related deaths after motor vehicle accidents.
That is a significant public health issue, and a uniquely American one – the U.S. accounts for 91% of firearm deaths of children ages 1-14 among all high-income countries. But Congress, co-opted by the National Rifle Assn. when it comes to gun policy, doesn’t treat gun violence as a threat to public health, which is outrageous.
The analysis exposes some interesting differences among victims. The highest rates of gun homicides were in Washington, D.C., and Louisiana, and then concentrated in the South and Midwest, as well as California – despite our relatively strong gun laws – and Nevada. Boys are victims at more than four times the rate for girls, a difference that increases among teenagers.
“The majority of these children are boys 13 to 17 years old, African American in the case of firearm homicide, and white and American Indian in the case of firearm suicide,” the report said.
Younger children tend to get shot by family members in domestic violence incidents, or as innocent bystanders in public shootings (though the study warns the data come from only 17 states under the National Violent Death Reporting System). Older children tended to get shot in connection with another crime, often gang-related or involving drugs.
In fact, 85% of children under age 12 were shot in a house or an apartment (60% of them overall by someone playing with a gun), but that drops to 39% among older kids, with a similar percentage shot in a street or alley. And handguns were used in more than three-quarters of the homicides but only 60% in suicides, and the figure is slightly lower in unintentional deaths.
Securing firearms can be a significant guard against suicides in particular, the report says. Putting away easily reached guns, which are dismayingly effective as a means of suicide, can reduce the number of incidents.
“Suicides are often impulsive in this age group, with previous findings indicating that many who attempt suicide spend 10 minutes or less deliberating,” the report says. “The high case fatality rate associated with firearm suicide attempts makes availability of highly lethal means in a time of crisis a crucial factor in determining whether a suicide attempt will be fatal.”
We know it’s a problem... We know steps can be taken to address it. But we don’t take them.
More and deeper research can suggest other policies and laws to address the gamut of gun-death and injury issues. For instance, laws limiting access to firearms by people under domestic-violence restraining orders reduces the risk of intimate-partner shootings, and programs aimed at reducing violence broadly – such as gang-diversion programs and school-based anti-violence training – also, unsurprisingly, reduce gun violence.
And here’s the nation’s shame. We know it’s a problem (you can track it daily here). We know steps can be taken to address it. But we don’t take them.
As others noted in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, our political system — skewed by the heavy thumb of the gun lobby — has decided that the lives of innocent children can be sacrificed for the sake of the chimera of a right to bear firearms. Garry Wills framed it within the context of the ancient Canaanite god, Moloch, to whom children were sacrificed.
“That horror [of Sandy Hook] cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person,” Wills wrote. “It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. … The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things.”
Remarkably, we’re in this rut of legislative inaction even though the percentage of Americans who own guns has decreased, 55% of Americans want more gun controls, and even a majority of gun owners support increased gun safety requirements and mandatory universal background checks – elements that have been blocked by the gun lobby.
Another oddity: Gun owners report they have the weapons for protection, even though violent crime in the U.S. has been dropping over the past quarter-century, and studies show that the presence of a firearm in the home increases the chances someone will get killed either through suicide or an act of domestic violence.
The longer we fail to act, the longer the carnage continues.
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To read the article in Spanish, click here