Youth Killed by Guns in US Equals Classroom a Day

The number of children and teens who die from gun violence in the United States on a given day could fill a typical high school classroom, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Preventing firearm-related injuries and deaths in children and youth “demands a public safety approach like regulation of motor vehicles,” the group said.

The organization on Saturday released an updated policy statement and technical report about gun violence and children at its 2022 annual meeting in Anaheim, California. The reports were published in the journal Pediatrics, and the authors plan to discuss them during the conference.

“Each day, 28 US children and teens — the equivalent of a high school classroom — die from gun violence, making it the No. 1 killer of youth through age 24,” the AAP said in a statement about the reports. “The national death rate is significantly higher than all other high-income countries combined, largely due to an alarming increase in suicides and homicides that do not make national headlines.”

Firearms have become the leading cause of death among children in the United States. 

In 2020, guns caused 10,197 deaths of Americans younger than 24, according to the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine.

In 2015, more than 7200 American youth were killed by firearms. That same year in 28 other high-income countries — which combined would have had a population twice that of the United States — just 685 youth were killed by firearms, according to the AAP.

Separately at the AAP conference, physicians are presenting new research about gun violence and children. And on Monday, a pediatrician who was at Uvalde Memorial Hospital in Texas after the deadly school shooting in May is scheduled to address attendees. The doctor, Roy Guerrero, MD, testified on Capitol Hill to advocate for gun control after the shooting at Robb Elementary School, which killed 19 children and two adults.

“This is not a simple problem and it cannot be fixed with a simple solution,” Lois K. Lee, MD, MPH, said in the AAP news release. Lee chairs the AAP Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention that wrote the new reports. “Pediatricians as a start can offer families guidance and education on more safely storing guns. AAP also calls for supporting legislation that, much like the common-sense requirements for obtaining a driver’s license, would improve gun ownership safety.”

Many Deaths Occur at Home

The rate of homicide from firearms in US youth, especially those aged 15-24 years, increased by 14% during the past decade, and the rate of suicide from firearms increased by 39%, according to the AAP.  

Homicides account for 58% of youth firearm deaths, whereas suicides account for 37%. Another 2% of youth firearm deaths are unintentional, and 1% result from law enforcement actions, the group said.

Among children 12 years old and younger, about 85% of firearm deaths occur at home. Teen firearm deaths are about as likely to occur at home (39%) as on the street or sidewalk (38%), according to research based on 2014 data.

“School shootings represent a relatively new phenomenon over the last half-century, and the United States has the highest rate of school shootings in the world,” the AAP technical report noted. Between 1966 and 2008, according to the group, 44 such shootings occurred in the United States, or an average of about one per year. Fast forward a few years and the violence became dramatically worse: Between 2013 and 2015, officials counted 154 school shootings — or about one per week.

Still, school shootings are responsible for less than 1% of all firearm deaths among children 17 years or younger in the United States. While school shootings “receive a tremendous amount of attention,” the report stated, other child firearm deaths may be less likely to make national headlines.

“Many firearm tragedies escape public attention because they occur in a home, sometimes in a child’s own home or at a friend’s house, or their neighbor’s or grandparent’s residence,” Eric W. Fleegler, MD, MPH, Boston Children’s Hospital, a co-author of the new reports, said in a statement from AAP. “Research tells us that families tend to underestimate how children will behave when they encounter a gun and miscalculate the risks. Suicide risks are also a huge concern, especially in families where teens are struggling with their mental health.”

AAP-recommended actions include:

  • Mental health screenings and safe gun storage education provided by clinicians as part of routine patient visits

  • Increased funding for violence intervention programs in hospital and community settings

  • Regulation of firearms like other consumer products, with national requirements that address training, licensing, insurance coverage, registration of individuals purchasing firearms, and safe storage

  • The use of technology that allows only authorized users to pull the trigger

  • Universal background checks that use federal databases and information from local police before all gun purchases

  • Extreme risk protection order (ERPO) laws, or “red flag laws,” that prohibit individuals at risk for harming themselves or others from purchasing or owning a firearm

  • More funding for firearm injury and prevention research.

A Noticeable Increase in the ED

Irma Ugalde, MD, associate professor and director of pediatric emergency medicine research at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston in Texas, noticed that firearm-related injuries in children at her hospital were more common during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as pediatric emergency department (ED) visits decreased overall.

She and her colleagues studied the trends and reported their findings at the AAP meeting.

“We saw a drop in pediatric admissions overall,” Ugalde said in a statement about the study. “But what was really noticeable was that trauma was still very prevalent — in fact probably more so — and we were seeing more firearm injuries.”

The researchers found that firearm injuries in children rose from 88 cases in 2019 to 118 in 2020. The number of incidents remained elevated in 2021, with 115 cases.

In addition, the researchers found an initial increase in injuries occurring at home where the shooter was a known family member or friend, and in cases involving firearms that were not properly stored.

By comparison, pediatric ED visits overall decreased by 34.2% from 2019-2020, and by 11.8% from 2019-2021.

The increase in firearm injuries coincided with an increase in gun sales in the United States, the researchers noted.

“National and statewide initiatives to mitigate the risk of firearm-related injury and death are necessary,” Ugalde’s group said. “We recommend that healthcare workers remain vigilant about screening for potential risk factors and safe storage of firearms.”

Accidental Injuries

Daniel D. Guzman, MD, with Cook Children’s Health Care Center in Fort Worth, Texas, conducted a study focused on unintentional firearm injuries in children. Guzman’s group analyzed data from 204 patients younger than age 19 seen at Cook Children’s from January 2015–June 2021.

Guzman and his colleagues examined outcomes for injuries caused by powder guns — shotguns, rifles, and handguns — and air-power guns that shoot BBs and pellets.

The researchers found that 29% of the unintentional firearm injuries occurred with powder guns and 71% with air-power weapons, often BB guns.

“It is important that all firearms, powdered and air-powered, be stored safely in a lock box or safe,” Guzman said in a statement. To that end, Cook Children’s has developed a program called Aim for Safety to teach children and parents about the dangers of unsupervised play with BB guns and pellet guns, as well as the importance of storing all firearms unloaded and in a locked safe.

Pediatrics. Published online October 8, 2022.
Policy statement, Technical report 

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