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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations
Kathleen Reich Patti L. Culross Richard E. Behrman


Each year, more than 20,000 children and youth under age 20 are killed or injured by firearms in the United States.1 Thousands of young people are shot by peers, family members, or strangers, either intentionally or unintentionally. Thousands more use guns to attempt suicide, and these attempts prove successful more often than suicides attempted by other means.2 Countless other children and youth, though not injured or killed themselves, are survivors of gun violence, scarred by the effects of such violence in their homes, schools, or communities. Although children and youth are often victimized by gun violence, they also can become perpetrators, using guns to kill or maim others.

Despite a dramatic drop in violent crime throughout the mid- to late 1990s,3 youth gun violence remains a significant concern among the public, policymakers, and researchers. The school shootings of the late 1990s, most notably at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April 1999, brought home the issue of youth gun violence to many Americans. School shootings remain very rare; between 1993 and 1998, they accounted for fewer than 1% of firearm deaths among children and youth under age 20. Youth gun violence is most likely to affect minority youth in inner cities and white youth at risk of suicide.1 Nonetheless, for many families, school shootings have underscored the fact that no child is safe from gun violence.

This journal issue takes a comprehensive look at youth gun violence in the United States, reflecting on the costs and consequences that firearm homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings impose on young people. The journal summarizes research in youth gun violence prevention, a field that encompasses the work of public health researchers, criminologists, psychologists, sociologists, and legal scholars. By exploring the issue of youth gun violence from these varied perspectives, this journal issue draws a clearer picture of which children and youth are at risk of perpetrating or being victimized by gun violence; how gun violence affects young people; and what society can do to reduce the number of youth gun injuries and deaths.

Although youth gun violence is only part of the larger problem of youth violence, guns merit special attention for two key reasons. First, the lethality and widespread availability of guns have worsened youth violence in this country. Gun violence is a significant cause of death and injury among young people, and imposes serious psychological, economic, and social consequences on children, families, and communities.

Second, until very recently, public debates about gun policies have not focused on the safety of children and youth. Instead, much of the debate has centered on the meaning of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the appropriate use of guns by adults. The Second Amendment reads, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Although there is extensive political and judicial debate over whether these words confer an individual right to bear arms or a collective right pertaining to state militias,4 few would argue that the Second Amendment gives children a right to possess guns.

The wide-ranging public debate about the appropriate uses of guns in society also frequently overlooks youth, focusing instead on the circumstances under which adults should have the right to own and use guns. Gun rights supporters emphasize the legitimate uses of guns for sport and self-defense.5–7 But here again, few propose that children and youth—especially younger children—should have access to guns for any purpose without adult supervision. As one prominent pro-gun advocate said, "No one defends unsupervised access to firearms by children."8

The key point is that when it comes to gun policy, according to both law and public opinion, children and youth are a special case. Given this consensus, and the enormous negative impact that gun violence has on children and youth, the goal of this journal issue is to help ensure that young people's safety becomes a central focus of the public debate on gun policy.

This article attempts to provide readers with a sense of the broad scope and complexity of the youth gun violence problem—and the understanding that multiple approaches are required if America is to make significant progress in reducing youth gun homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings. The article begins with an overview of the physical, economic, and psychological effects of gun violence by and against young people. A discussion of strategies for reducing youth gun violence follows. We recommend a range of approaches to address the problem—including changing behaviors regarding guns among parents, youth, and communities; adopting community-based law enforcement approaches; altering the design of guns to make them harder for children to access and use; and tightening laws regarding gun sales to restrict youth access to guns.

Because few youth gun violence prevention policies or programs have been evaluated to date, the strategies and recommendations presented in this article should be viewed as starting points, not solutions. Hopefully, they will spur policymakers and the public to think broadly and creatively about how to reduce the death and injury toll from firearms among children and youth.