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How American Children Are Killed by Guns

And how we might better prevent their deaths.
A student takes part in a protest against gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on March 14th, 2018, in Parkland, Florida.

A student takes part in a protest against gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on March 14th, 2018, in Parkland, Florida.

Every day, 19 children are shot in America, according to a recent study. Nearly 1,300 kids under the age of 18 die every year from gunshot wounds, and almost 6,000 go to the hospital for non-fatal firearm injuries. So why, exactly, were these children shot, and what can that information tell us about how to prevent their deaths?

In the wake of a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the ongoing student protests for gun control that ensued, the nation's attention has homed in on mass murders at schools. Mass shootings have been increasing in frequency and number of victims, as the Guardian reported in 2016. Even so, they remain very rare in America, compared to other kinds of fatal violence. To make a dent in the death toll, it's important to understand all the causes of gunshot injuries among children, and the separate policies that have been shown to reduce them.

The statistics suggest that, when it comes to firearms, suicide, and everyday violence—such as fights between adults or teens, or shots fired during other crimes—kill the most children. And children of different races are affected differently. American Indian and white teens are disproportionately likely to kill themselves with guns: More than 400 13- to 17-year-olds of these races commit suicide by firearm every year, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Pediatrics. Meanwhile, black children suffer the most from gun violence overall, making up 35 percent of its child victims in the United States, even though only about 13 percent of Americans are black. The disparity in how often black children are killed by guns is driven by the fact that they're far more likely to be victims of gun homicides. About 400 black children under the age of 18 are thought to be killed in firearm homicides each year. In fact, black children are about 10 times more likely to die in gun murders as their white and Asian-American counterparts.

The most common reasons for child gun homicides, as analyzed in the Pediatrics study, are not exactly surprising. In detailed data from 17 states covering the years 2003 to 2013, the research team found that, after suicides, the largest number of American children die in homicides sparked by arguments, other crimes, and gang-related activity. Meanwhile, in that data set, 1 percent or less of children who died of gunshot wounds were shot at school.

What does all this mean for gun-control solutions? In the wake of tragedies like school shootings, advocates often call for various legislative measures. Some, like expanded background checks on gun buyers, are indeed expected to reduce gun violence across the board because they help keep weapons out of the hands of criminals. (And background checks will work against everyday violence even if they wouldn't have prevented individual mass shootings, in which the shooters obtained their firearms legally, as the Guardian pointed out in its 2016 investigation of American gun violence.)

In addition, policies that keep guns out of the hands of people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts have promise. There's good evidence showing that more gun ownership means more suicides by firearm. Psychologists think that suicide attempts are usually impulsive, and people reach for whatever means is readily available. So it may help to make sure that folks can't get access to guns—which tend to be deadlier than other methods—when they're in crisis. In recent weeks, even the stridently anti-gun-control National Rifle Association has backed the idea of "gun violence restraining orders," which allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to take away a person's firearms if they indicate they're a threat to themselves or others. Such laws would affect would-be mass shooters and suicides alike.

But some other important solutions have nothing to do with gun control. Reducing commonplace violence—those homicides sparked by arguments, other crimes, and gang-related activity—would make a big difference to many of the children most burdened by gun deaths in the country. Several programs have been shown to reduce homicide rates in cities, as ProPublica's Lois Beckett reported in 2015. They don't require that the law change, only money and hard work from community stakeholders. But they've suffered from little funding and political interest, ProPublica found. Writing later for the GuardianBeckett suggested the problem was America's intense focus on mass shootings, which are naturally attention-grabbing, but whose circumstances don't reflect the greatest risks American kids face.

In order to address America's gun deaths problem, it seems lawmakers need to look at the big picture first.