Gun violence is kids’ top killer. Groups build efforts to stop it

Lyle Ellerbee

From the way people talk about it, you might think school shootings are the biggest threat facing kids today.

But that’s only part of the danger. School shootings make up only a fraction of firearm deaths involving children. It’s gun violence in general that kills the most kids, and the rate is steadily rising each year, as more children are involved in gun-related accidents, suicides, and homicides.

Firearms were the leading cause of death in kids age 1 and older for the first time in 2020, the most recent year for which CDC data is available.

That includes school shootings, like the one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 and the one in Parkland more than four years ago.

As a society, we’ve become numb to these repeated horrors. But there are those who never will, who have dedicated their lives to the fight against gun violence.

They are moms, survivors, trauma doctors, some lawmakers. And they continue to rally and serve their communities to stop it from repeating and repeating and repeating.

Some fight every day to treat the carnage that sends kids to their emergency rooms with gunshot wounds. Sometimes, it’s too late to help.

And their hands are tied when it comes to healing the underlying causes of gun violence. As much as they would like to provide preventive care, they only see kids who have already been harmed with a firearm.

Arthur Berg, a trauma fellow in a Miami hospital, compared the dangers of gun violence to car wrecks.

For decades, car crashes were the leading cause of death for young Americans, aged 1 to 19. But the gap between car crash deaths and firearms deaths began to steadily narrow in recent years. In 2020, gun violence overtook car accidents to become the number one cause of death for U.S. children and adolescents.

“There is very little research done on gun violence compared to motor vehicle accidents,” he said, noting that the research into motor vehicle crashes steered public officials and lawmakers toward making safer roads, putting more safety features in cars, and creating a push for safer driving. After implementing those, the traffic mortality rate plummeted, he said.

“When you compare that to research around gun violence, it’s really sad. There’s next to nothing,” he said.

To him, it’s more of a public health issue, just like motor vehicle accidents, and never should have become politicized.

He noted that in 2018, former President Donald Trump signed a spending bill that finally restored research for gun violence prevention after 20 years without it. It provided $25 million to be split evenly between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

But research into gun-related deaths is still decades behind where it could be if it weren’t for the 20-year gap. Berg compared the $25 million to the amount of money spent on preventing deaths from car wrecks, which he estimated at $200 million. He knows it won’t be enough.

“There’s such a huge disparity there. There’s so much ground to make up,” he said.

Community outreach programs, including neighborhood stabilization programs and even green space initiatives, have been shown to reduce firearm-related deaths in those communities, he said.

But because the majority of gun-related deaths are suicides, he said it’s vital that gun violence research does not leave out how mental health plays into the gun violence epidemic.

Researchers from Boston-area medical schools came to a similar conclusion in a recent New England Journal of Medicine article. It highlighted the trend of rising gun violence among children and adolescents.

They wrote that the change resulted from the rising number of firearm-related deaths in this age group, and the continuing reduction in deaths from motor vehicle crashes.

“The crossing of these trend lines demonstrates how a concerted approach to injury prevention can reduce injuries and deaths — and, conversely, how a public health problem can be exacerbated in the absence of such attention,” they wrote. “Research has shown that most injuries can be prevented by means of the manufacture and appropriate use of safe products and the implementation of policies reducing product-related danger and the occurrence of hazardous situations — the principals of harm reduction.”

“By contrast, many states have made it easier for children and young adults, as well as adults with criminal records, to gain access to firearms. Some states don’t require background checks when firearms are purchased from private sellers,
such as at gun shows. In recent years, many of the same states have passed legislation allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.”

Some fight to keep the memory of their loved ones alive, and prevent someone else’s child from becoming the next statistic.

To mark gun violence awareness day on June 3, a group of moms, teachers, students, and gun-control advocates gathered to honor their children, their students, their classmates lost to gun violence.

Romania Dukes described how she lost her 18-year-old son, De’Michael, when he was hit by a stray bullet in their neighborhood. Dukes said he was only 10 steps away from her, and he died in her arms. His daughter was only 2 months old when he died, she said.

After that, Dukes helped start Mothers Fighting For Justice, where she said she fights alongside other moms who are just like her, from Homestead and Hialeah all the way to Parkland.

“We all feel the same pain,” she said at the June 3 protest outside Sen. Marco Rubio’s office. “We’re losing our kids daily. Daily we are losing our families.”

“We don’t have much connection in our neighborhoods to Congress. The congressmen and senators, they don’t visit the ‘hood. So it’s important for us to be having these conversations in addition to the ones about the laws that can save our lives in classrooms as well, and in supermarkets, and in hospitals, and anywhere else.”

—  RuQuan Brown, who is involved in March For Our Lives

Dukes pointed out that in her community, and in so many Black and brown communities that are disproportionately affected by gun violence, kids are not buying their guns legally the way the shooters in Parkland and Uvalde did. They’re stealing them out of cars and out of homes, she said.

Tangela Sears, who also lost her son to gun violence, founded Florida Parents of Murdered Kids. She too pointed out that kids living in the cycle of poverty steal guns from law-abiding citizens who likely didn’t securely store their guns. That’s just another way the lack of regulations contributes to gun violence.

RuQuan Brown wants to find ways to make a bigger impact against gun violence, including stopping the cycle of violence in communities of color. He got involved with March For Our Lives in March 2020.

“It was important for me as an advocate for some of the poorer neighborhoods in America to have a microphone on that stage as well,” he said. “What we don’t want to happen again and again is for the most marginalized groups to be left out of a movement.”

Brown, 20, pointed out that gun laws that protect some people don’t serve the same purpose for people who live in lower socioeconomic communities.

“We don’t have much connection in our neighborhoods to Congress. The congressmen and senators, they don’t visit the ‘hood,” he said. “So it’s important for us to be having these conversations in addition to the ones about the laws that can save our lives in classrooms as well, and in supermarkets, and in hospitals, and anywhere else.”

David Hogg, who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, helped Brown get involved with March for Our Lives. He stressed that hatred and radicalization is what drives young, volatile men like the one who shot up his school to do so. And the U.S. is a breeding ground for that type of extremism, he said.

“We have to address not just how somebody gets a gun, but why somebody picks up a gun,” he said. “Two-thirds of gun deaths in this country are suicides that predominantly happen in rural communities. That’s how mental health plays into it.

“What I don’t want to hear is ‘the shooter at my high school is mentally ill.’ The shooter at my high school was a white supremacist. He wasn’t mentally ill,” Hogg said. “I’m so sick and tired of hearing that as a scapegoat for white nationalist mass shooters.”

In a speech he gave last week, President Joe Biden pleaded for stricter gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons, tougher background check laws and a higher minimum age of purchase — similar to some of the measures Florida took after the shooting in Parkland.

“My God, the fact that the majority of the Senate Republicans don’t want any of these proposals even to be debated or come up for a vote, I find unconscionable,” Biden said. “We can’t fail the American people again.”

Fifty-six candles burned behind him to represent victims of gun violence in the U.S.

On Wednesday, legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a legislative package of gun reform proposals, including a federal red flag law and the Protecting Our Kids Act.

The latter is a gun-control package composed of eight measures, including increasing the age limit on the purchase of certain firearms, implementing universal background checks, preventing gun trafficking and ghost guns, and requiring the safe storage of firearms.

Over hours of debate, Democrats accused Republicans of prioritizing their political careers over the survival of America’s children.

Republicans accused Democrats of attacking Second Amendment protections under the Bill of Rights.

The measures aren’t likely to fair well in the U.S. Senate.

But there was a moment when people on both sides of the gun debate joined forces to respond to the latest tragedy at the time.

Florida is a rare example of a Republican-led state that took swift action on gun restrictions after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation raising the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21, after the then-19-year-old shooter used a gun he had purchased legally.

Gun-control advocates don’t expect the Republican-led Florida Legislature to back off its pro-gun stance, even as the nation’s attention is gripped by yet another mass shooting at a school. Gov. Ron DeSantis has promised that before he leaves office, he’ll sign into law a proposal that would allow Floridians to carry handguns without a permit.

Federal and state Democrats have filed legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and semiautomatic rifles, expand the state’s red-flag law, and require background checks for private gun sales and the sale of bullets.

None of those measures have gotten traction. An effort to get an “assault weapons” ban on the ballot as a voter referendum also faltered.

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State lawmakers pushed through reforms after the Parkland school shooting that killed 17 students and staff in 2018, marking a rare moment of bipartisan consensus on the issue. That tragedy occurred during an election year while legislators were in session. Student protesters demanded action in statewide demonstrations, including at the nation’s Capitol.

Changes included raising the age to buy a rifle from 18 to 21, making it easier for law enforcement to seize guns from dangerous people, imposing a statewide three-day waiting period for long-gun sales, boosting mental health and school security funding and stationing armed guards at every school.

March for Our Lives rallies planned across the nation this weekend are generating some of that urgency again, renewing the push for “common sense gun restrictions.”

This Saturday, hundreds of events will take place in unison across the country — with the hope all the public attention could force meaningful changes.

This time, March for Our Lives and other gun-control groups plan to mobilize supporters to push Congress to require universal background checks, pass red flag laws allowing guns to be confiscated in certain cases, and raise the age limit to buy certain guns.

In South Florida, marches are planned in Parkland, Weston, Coral Gables and Key West.

Brooke Baitinger can be reached at: [email protected], 954-422-0857 or on Twitter: @bybbaitinger

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