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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 (2/3)

The Human Toll: Homicides, Suicides, Unintentional Shootings, and Firearm Injuries

In 1994, the number of gun deaths among children and youth under age 20 reached a historic high of 5,833; by 1998, annual deaths had fallen to 3,792.1 Still, gun death rates among children and youth due to homicide, suicide, and unintentional shooting are far higher in the United States than in other industrialized nations.

The risk of gun death is not spread evenly throughout the youth population, however. Certain groups of young people are at greatest risk. Moreover, a February 2002 study found that children ages 5 to 14 were more likely to die from gunshot wounds if they lived in states where firearm ownership was more common. This finding held true even after the researchers controlled for state-level poverty rates, education, and urbanization.25

Homicide

An estimated 58% of firearm deaths among children and youth under age 20 in 1998 were homicides.26 As detailed in the article by Fingerhut and Christoffel in this journal issue, older teens, males, minority youth, and young people residing in urban areas are more likely than other children and youth to die in gun homicides. Adolescent African American males are at highest risk for youth gun homicide; in 1998, some 63 out of every 100,000 African American males ages 15 to 19 died in a firearm homicide, compared with a rate of 29 per 100,000 for their Hispanic counterparts and 3 per 100,000 for white male teenagers.

Children and youth are perpetrators as well as victims of gun violence. In 1998, juveniles and youth under age 25 committed 54% of gun homicides in which the offender was known; juveniles under age 18 alone accounted for 12% of gun homicides in which the offender was known.27 African American teenage males are more likely to commit gun homicides than are white or Hispanic youth.28 Thus, African American youth are overrepresented both as victims and perpetrators of youth gun deaths.

Even without firearms, American children are more likely to die in homicides than their counterparts in other industrialized nations.29 However, guns worsen the violence. The firearm-related homicide rate among children under age 15 in the United States is nearly 16 times higher than in 25 other industrialized nations combined.30

If the United States could reduce youth gun homicide to levels more comparable to those of other nations, youth homicide rates in general would decline significantly, giving more children and youth—particularly adolescent males, minority youth, and young people living in inner cities—a better chance of reaching adulthood. An important first step in this process is to forge a national commitment to reduce youth gun homicide. The effort should be led by the federal government and include active involvement by a wide range of stakeholders such as public health experts, law enforcement personnel, religious leaders, community leaders, educators, and parents.


Recommendation

Congress and federal health agencies should set a goal of reducing youth gun homicide to levels comparable to those of other industrialized nations, engaging in a comprehensive effort to identify the causes of youth gun homicide and reduce its prevalence in American society.


Suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of firearm-related deaths among children and youth, accounting for 33% of these deaths in 1998.26 Although youth gun suicides declined somewhat in the late 1990s, firearms remain the most common method of suicide among youth, as the article by Fingerhut and Christoffel notes. Youth are more likely to use guns to commit suicide than are older, nonelderly adults; in 1994, about 67% of 15- to 24-year-olds used firearms to commit suicide, compared with 56% of 25- to 64-year-olds.31 White adolescents, males, and youth living in rural areas are more likely than other youth to die in gun suicides,1 although the gun suicide rate among African American adolescent males has risen sharply in the past 20 years, and is approaching the rate for white adolescent males.32

Numerous studies have documented a clear association between the presence of firearms in the home and suicides, particularly suicides by adolescents and young adults.31,33,34 One study found that guns were twice as likely to be present in the homes of teen suicide victims as in the homes of suicide attempters or a comparison group of teen psychiatric patients who were not suicidal.33 Household firearm ownership is positively associated with the firearm suicide rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, even after controlling for education, unemployment, and urban residence.31

The rate of nonfirearm suicides among 5- to 14-year-olds in the United States is roughly equal to the rate in other industrialized countries combined. However, the firearm suicide rate among children in this age group is nearly 11 times higher. As a result, children in the United States commit suicide at twice the rate of children in 25 other industrialized nations combined.35

Despite the prevalence of youth gun suicide, it has been something of a silent killer, not attracting nearly as much attention from policymakers, researchers, and the media as youth gun homicide or even unintentional shootings. One unresolved issue in academic literature is whether youth who commit suicide with a gun would simply have found another way to kill themselves if guns were not available to them. Given the extreme lethality of firearms, it seems plausible that at least some young people might not have succeeded in their suicide attempts if they had not had access to a gun. Therefore, convincing young people, parents, and the public to keep guns away from youth at risk of suicide should be a high priority.


Recommendation

Federal and state public health agencies should make youth gun suicide a central focus of their gun violence prevention and suicide prevention activities, developing and assessing methods for keeping guns away from youth at risk of suicide.