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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

Gun Deaths and Injuries among Children and Youth (1/3)

Guns are exceptionally lethal weapons, and they are easily available to young people. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lethality and availability of guns, particularly handguns, fueled a youth gun violence epidemic that peaked in 1994, when nearly 6,000 young people under age 20 died from firearm injuries.1 That crisis has abated, but the number and rate of youth gun homicides, suicides, and unintentional shooting deaths remain unacceptably high in this country. Nearly 4,000 children and youth under age 20 were killed with firearms in 1998, and more than 18,000 others were injured.1 Unfortunately, data regarding the extent of and circumstances surrounding youth gun violence are limited, and the need for better data remains a major concern. This section summarizes what is known about youth gun deaths and injuries, and makes recommendations for obtaining better information.

The Lethality and Easy Availability of Guns

Youth violence is a complex problem, influenced by psychological, economic, and social factors.9 But the problem is worsened substantially because of the lethality and accessibility of firearms. Guns cause deaths and severe injuries more frequently than knives, clubs, or fists, and with guns, even transitory violent impulses can have lethal consequences. Guns also are easily available to young people, even though federal law, with a few exceptions,10 prohibits those under 21 from purchasing handguns and those under 18 from purchasing rifles and shotguns or possessing handguns.11 (See the table on federal firearm laws in this issue.) Exceptional lethality, combined with easy access, accounts at least in part for the fact that firearm-related injuries remain the second leading cause of death among children and youth ages 10 to 19. Only motor vehicle accidents claim more young lives.1

The Lethality of Guns

Guns are more lethal than other weapons. For example, robberies committed with guns are 3 times more likely to result in a fatality than are robberies with knives, and 10 times more likely than are robberies with other weapons.12 Between 1996 and 1998, there was 1 death for every 4.4 visits to emergency departments by young people under age 20 for treatment of a firearm injury. In comparison, the ratio of deaths to emergency department visits for nonfirearm-related injuries for the same age group was 1:760.1

Guns have become more lethal over the past few decades. As detailed in the article by Wintemute in this journal issue, the increase in youth gun violence in the late 1980s coincided with the diffusion of high-powered semiautomatic pistols into the legal and illegal gun markets. These pistols had higher calibers (the higher a gun's caliber, the higher its destructive potential13,14) and held more ammunition than their predecessors. Semiautomatic pistols, particularly inexpensive ones, quickly became weapons of choice for criminals, including young people; by 1999, these pistols accounted for one-half of all guns traced by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) after being recovered by law enforcement following a crime. With the increasing use of these guns came increases in rates of firearm violence, the average number of bullet wounds per person injured, and the proportion of victims who died before reaching the hospital.15

The Easy Availability of Guns

The increased lethality of guns, particularly handguns, coincided with their increasing availability to and use by young people. The article by Blumstein in this journal issue notes that the carrying of guns by youth began to rise in the late 1980s in tandem with the explosive growth of markets for crack cocaine. As young drug dealers in urban communities began using guns to protect the cash and narcotics they carried, other young people in the community also began carrying guns, often for self-protection. This process was exacerbated by the growth of youth gangs, which tightened social networks among teenagers and served as conduits for the diffusion of guns.16

Overall homicide rates in the United States rose to nearly unprecedented levels between 1985 and 1993, and the entire increase was attributable to homicides committed by young people with guns. Guns were not the only reason for this increase; the rise of crack cocaine, an increase in child poverty, and expanded gang activity also were important factors.17 But the increasing lethality and availability of guns undoubtedly played a key role in the explosive growth of youth gun homicide.18 As the Surgeon General reported in 2001:

The epidemic of violence from 1983 to 1993 does not seem to have resulted from a basic change in the offending rates and viciousness of young offenders. Rather, it resulted primarily from a relatively sudden change in the social environment—the introduction of guns into violent exchanges among youth. The violence epidemic was, in essence, the result of a change in the presence and type of weapon used, which increased the lethality of violent incidents.19

Since the early 1990s, both youth gun carrying and youth gun violence have declined dramatically. Several articles in this journal issue offer theories to explain the decrease; these include a drop in illegal drug market activity (particularly surrounding crack cocaine), stronger law enforcement against youth gun carrying, and increased public education efforts promoting safe storage of guns and violence prevention.20 Still, many young people apparently have little difficulty obtaining guns, either from home, from friends, through illegal purchase from gun dealers or “on the street,” or through theft.

For example, an estimated 34% of children in the United States live in homes with firearms.21 In addition, in a national study of male high school sophomores and juniors conducted in 1998, 50% of respondents reported that obtaining a gun would be “little” or “no” trouble.22 A 1999 national survey estimated that 833,000 American youth between the ages of 12 and 17 had carried a handgun at least once in the previous year.23 Many teens who carry guns cite the need for self-protection as their primary reason for doing so.24 With so many children and youth reporting easy access to guns, high rates of youth gun death and injury should not be surprising.