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With Cases Soaring, Guns Are Now Leading Cause of Death for U.S. Kids
  • Posted August 21, 2023

With Cases Soaring, Guns Are Now Leading Cause of Death for U.S. Kids

Guns are now the leading cause of death among kids in the United States.

That's the chilling message from a new study that looked at numbers of U.S. children killed by guns from 2018 to 2021. During this time, there was close to a 42% jump in firearm-caused deaths.

“There is a skyrocketing rate of firearm violence in this country, and it's getting worse,” said study author Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon and director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

There are also growing racial and economic disparities in rates of firearm violence in kids, with Black children hardest hit.

There's no single reason why these grim statistics are on the rise.

“It is multi-factorial,” Sathya said. “A majority of these deaths in kids are driven by unintentional injuries due to more guns in homes, but firearm homicide, mainly violence and assault, is the biggest driver and only a sliver of these rates are from mass shootings.”

In 2020, the number of kids killed by guns skyrocketed 28.8% likely because more people bought guns during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sathya said. The hope was that numbers would return to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

They didn't. Instead, they rose, the study showed. In 2021, there were 4,752 firearm deaths in kids, up 8.8% over 2020.

Of those 2021 deaths, 64.3% were homicides; nearly 30% were suicides; and 3.5% resulted from unintentional injury. In all, 84.8% of the 2021 victims were male; about half were Black; 82.6% were between 15 and 19 years of age, and 64.3% died by homicide, the study showed.

Black children accounted for 67.3% of firearm homicides, and white children accounted for 78.4% of firearm suicides. From 2020 to 2021, the suicide rate increased among Black and white children but decreased among American Indians and Alaskan Natives, the study showed.

There were also regional differences, with worsening clusters of firearm deaths in Southern states and increasing rates in the Midwest from 2018 to 2021. The higher the poverty levels, the greater the number of gun-related deaths in kids, the study showed.

To reverse these trends, policy changes must address access to weapons as well as the other factors driving the update, Sathya said. Doctors need to ask about guns in the home and how they are stored. Guns should be unloaded, locked and separated from ammunition, he said.

“We also have to look at how we control illegal gun flow and continue to invest in community-based prevention programs,” Sathya said.

This is a public health issue, not a political one, he stressed.

“We all have a part to play, and we must reframe this as a public health issue and not focus on political aspects of gun ownership,” Sathya said.

The study was published in the September issue of Pediatrics.

The findings mirror what Dr. Monika Goyal sees in her practice. She is the associate division chief of emergency medicine at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“Firearm injuries, the leading cause of death among children, continue to rise, with Black and socio-economically disenfranchised youth disproportionately affected," said Goyal, who reviewed the findings. “We must stop politicizing this issue and start investing and committing to the development and implementation of evidence-based strategies for firearm safety.”

More information

HealthDay has more on how to protect kids from gun violence.

SOURCES: Chethan Sathya, MD, pediatric trauma surgeon and director, Center for Gun Violence Prevention, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Monika Goyal, MD, associate division chief, emergency medicine, Children's National Hospital, Washington, D.C.; Pediatrics, September 2023

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