Guns are the number one cause of death among children. But it wasn’t always this way. For nearly sixty years, car accidents were the leading cause of death among kids, but according to New England Journal of Medicine, firearm violence took over the top spot in 2017. And experts believe that gun violence has only increased during the pandemic.
The massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, on May 24, in which at least 19 children and 2 teachers were killed by a gunman, is the latest horrific event in a long string of mass shootings this year. There have been at least 77 incidents of gunfire on school grounds so far in 2022 alone.
The Uvalde massacre is the second deadliest school shooting ever.
Gun violence is killing our children. It’s unspeakable. But how can we talk about anything else?
A concerted approach led to change
According to a research letter in New England Journal of Medicine, the reason for the change in the leading cause of death among children is due to two factors: gun violence deaths have increased, while deaths from motor vehicle crashes have continuously decreased.
“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,” write the authors.
Consistent, concerted action over several decades has successfully reduced the number of children’s deaths by car accident, which is something we haven’t seen when it comes to firearm violence.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes a firm stance in support of gun control. "Gun violence is a public health epidemic that is injuring and killing children at alarming rates. Any death from gun violence is one too many if it's in your family or your community. We must implement common-sense solutions that have been proven to reduce these injuries and deaths," the organization states.
In reducing deaths from car crashes, harm reduction has worked: Cars have been manufactured to be safer and smarter. Carseats have become more protective. Driver education programs and licensing requirements have increased. Seatbelt laws have been instituted to protect drivers and passengers, all in the name of preventing unnecessary deaths.
Deaths by gun violence are preventable deaths, too. But little has been done to prevent them.
In the firearm industry, the reverse is happening. Guns haven’t been manufactured to be safer or smarter. Some states have made it even easier to purchase a weapon without a background check, or passed laws allowing people to carry a concealed weapon, no permit required.
Concerted harm reduction around gun violence would require more action at the federal level.
“At the forefront of this effort has been the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency whose mission is to save lives and prevent injuries caused by road-traffic crashes,” note the authors. “Firearms, however, are one of the few products whose safety isn’t regulated by a designated federal agency.”
It would also require more research dollars, and there is no significant federal funding devoted to research on firearm safety, write the authors. “The firearm industry and gun-rights organizations, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), have been effective at keeping federal dollars from financing firearm-related research.”
Gun violence increased during the pandemic
In 2021, 1055 children were killed or injured by gunfire, up from 999 in 2020 and 695 in 2019, according to a report from Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization.
The rise in recent years is likely correlated with several factors, one of which is an increase in gun sales, plus more time at home as a result of the pandemic lockdowns, which may have led to more cases of undetected domestic violence and abuse.
Death by gun violence is a rising trend not just in children 11 and under, but in age groups across the board. It’s an epidemic that shows no signs of slowing.
In 2020, 4,142 teens ages 12 to 17 were killed or injured by gun violence. In 2019, that number was 3,122.
And while mass shootings are also on the rise, it’s usually smaller, day-to-day incidents that account for the majority of children’s deaths—and often don’t make news headlines. “Many more daily acts of gun violence that don’t make the headlines also rob children of their childhood and families of their community every day. Communities of color are disproportionately harmed,” says Moira Szilagyi, MD, PhD, FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement.
We don’t have to accept this
Of course, there are other issues besides gun reform on the table demanding moms’ attention, too: paid leave, affordable childcare, reproductive rights, food insecurity.
But how can we talk about anything else when our children’s very lives are at risk? How can we rally our abject rage as parents and community members into spurring our legislators toward real progress?
By not accepting this as status quo.
“As the progress made in reducing deaths from motor vehicle crashes shows, we don’t have to accept the high rate of firearm-related deaths among U.S. children and adolescents,” write the authors of the NEJM letter.
By demanding that our children deserve better.
“School shootings are not acts of nature, they’re man-made acts of inaction, of cowardice, of corruption by all lawmakers who refuse to pass laws proven by data to stop preventable, senseless shootings like in Uvalde. We cannot and will not accept a reality in which our children aren’t safe in schools or their communities,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, in a statement.
By not losing hope.
“Despite past inaction, we must not assume there is no hope for change. We should not grow accustomed to these acts of gun violence,” says Dr. Szilagyi. “We owe it to the children in that classroom in Uvalde and the many others who will go into their classrooms tomorrow to speak up for them, to not rest until we see real, meaningful, policy change. Until their lives are protected.”