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Friday, February 23, 2024

A generation of youth have grown up not knowing a world absent the fear of mass shootings

Shots Fired (and Keep Firing): Gun Violence Epidemic in the United States


I saw someone get shot and I saw blood splatter everywhere and they just fell off their chair,” described the unnamed young cousin of “Trisha” who was slaughtered during the Lewiston, Maine massacre. 

Children are victimized in every conceivable way because of America’s love affair with guns. 

Why do people do this? I was more worried about am I gonna live . . .,” wondered 10-year-old Zoey Hutchinson after being grazed by a bullet in the October 25, 2023 Lewiston, ME mass shooting. Zoey was at the local bowling alley with her mother for youth night. 

Fourteen-year-old Aaron Young, who also attended the youth bowling night was killed, alongside his father during the massacre. Those incidents contributed to the more than 1695 children and teens killed in the U.S. in gun related incidents in 2023.

Gun violence has become an epidemic in the U.S. with children dying in record numbers due to homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings. 

Inadequate laws, and conflict resolution strategies and skills, inadequate and inaccessible mental health services, and a proliferation of access to firearms have all come together to create a perfect, deadly storm. 

Until we develop and employ effective strategies to address conflict resolution strategies in homes, schools and communities, and ensure access to mental health services, we will continue to see a rise in the gun violence that is robbing a generation of the innocence of childhood and youth.

On September 5, 2023 a father in Lithonia, Georgia emerged from a gas station to find his 7-year-old son dead from a gunshot. It is unclear whether the gunshot was self-inflicted, or whether it was at the hands of the victim’s 6-year-old sibling, who ran from the vehicle moments after the gunshot was heard. 

The father had left an unsecured firearm in the vehicle with his two children inside unsupervised. In April, 2023 a Memphis, Tennessee 12-year-old boy committed suicide after shooting his sister who also succumbed to her injuries. 

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, and an analysis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality statistics gun deaths among U.S. kids rose 50% from 2019 to 2021. 

Centers for Disease Control data statistics show that boys account for 83% of gun deaths among children and teens. Children aged 12 to 17 account for 86% of gun deaths among children and teens. And, astonishingly, 184 children aged 5 and under were killed in gun violence incidents in 2021.

The disparities in firearm-related child and teen deaths do not end with differences in gender. The 2023 State of America’s Children report indicates that Black males are as much as six-times more likely than White males to be victims of homicides. 

In fact, in 2021, 46% of all firearm-related deaths among children and teens involved Black victims, even though only 14% of the U.S. population under 18 was Black. By comparison, only 32% of firearm-related deaths involved White victims, 17% Hispanic, and 1% Asian victims

The disproportionate impact of gun violence in the Black community, and involving children is wreaking havoc on those communities, particularly on Black male children. Black communities have a rate of attrition due to gun violence with which it can scarcely contend. 

In 2021, 84% of gun deaths involving Black children and teens were homicides, and 9% were suicides. Versus 66% of gun deaths involving White teens being suicides, and 24% homicides.

In 2020 and 2021 firearms contributed to more deaths of children and teens in the U.S. than any other type of injury or illness, and at a much higher rate than our peer nations. More than any other cause, even surpassing deaths due to motor vehicles, which had long been the number one cause of child deaths. The child firearm death rate in the U.S. has doubled from a low of 1.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2013 to 3.7 in 2021.

Child and teen deaths continue to rise in the U.S. and continue to garner interest on a national and world stage. Yet, we fail to make significant progress enacting common sense laws for the protection of children. “The U.S. remains stagnant on enacting adequate gun violence prevention measures.” 

This stagnation results in “the loss of young lives and (leaves) holes in families and communities that can never be filled. We cannot afford to continue to normalize the exceedingly persistent public health crisis of gun violence.” 

On February 14, 2024 a shooting injured four students at Atlanta’s Benjamin Mays High School. This occurred against the backdrop of a bill supported by the Georgia Senate to authorize a tax-free holiday for the purchase of guns and ammunition. Passage of bills of this nature do nothing to address the alarming trend of increasing child homicides, suicides, and massacres.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 656 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2023. Instead of more cops on campuses, we need increased presence of school counselors. 

Instead of expulsions, we need more experiences that match children with their interests in school programming, to keep them in school and engaged. Instead of juries and arrests, we need jobs, to meet children at the very basic needs they are trying to address through gun violence.

The normalization of gun violence has already created a generation of youth who does not know a world absent the fear of mass shootings, schoolyards have become combat zones. In 2023, there were 137 shootings, 42 deaths, and 94 injuries in K-12 schools in America. 

Children born since the Columbine massacre have seen the incidence of and gun violence (including school shootings) steadily increaseEvery year 19,000 children and teens are shot and killed or wounded and approximately 3 million are exposed to gun violence. 

I never thought I’d grow up and get a bullet in my leg. It’s just like, why?” asks Zoey. How many more children must kill or be killed before America wakes up and addresses the gun violence epidemic that is plaguing the nation?

DEITRA BURNEY-BUTLER is a Racial Justice in Early Childhood Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project in partnership with the National Black Child Development Institute. She is also a Zero to Three Fellow, and a Juvenile Court Judge for nearly 15 years, with an additional 10 years in prosecution, parent-attorney, child-attorney, and guardian ad litem work in juvenile courts.