Gun-related deaths among children in the US hit a worrying peak in 2021, claiming 4,752 young lives, surpassing the record number in the first year of the pandemic, a new analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found.
The alarming statistic clearly showed America’s gun violence epidemic is getting worse, experts say.
More than 80% of gun deaths occurred in men aged 19 and under. Black male children were more likely to die from homicides. White males aged 19 and younger were at higher risk of committing suicide with guns.
“This is undoubtedly one of our biggest public health crises in this country,” said Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon at Northwell Health in New York and lead author of the study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. “The most likely reason your child will die in this country is death by gun. That is not acceptable.”
This grim reality marks the second year in a row that gun-related injuries have cemented their position as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, ahead of motor vehicles, drug overdoses and cancer.
There’s no sign of this trend slowing down, Sathya said.
Almost two-thirds of deaths in 2021 were homicides, although many children were also killed by accidental gunfire. Regardless of how young the victims are, child gun deaths have left their mark in almost every part of the United States
In recent months, a three-year-old has died in Florida after shooting himself with a handgun. In California, a three-year-old killed his one-year-old sister with a pistol. A two-year-old in Michigan died after finding an “unsafe firearm.” A six-year-old boy was fatally shot by a nine-year-old boy in Florida last week.
Black children continue to be disproportionately affected.
According to the analysis, the number of children killed by guns increased by almost 42% between 2018 and 2021. The death toll continued to rise in 2021, with more than 4,700 firearm-related child deaths reported, an almost 9% increase in the rate compared to 2020.
Researchers had expected child gun deaths to fall in 2021, after a sharp spike in 2020 believed to be due to pandemic-related lockdowns and confinement of children at home.
However, these predictions were not realized.
“This came as a surprise to many of us,” Sathya said, adding that the country may have reached an “alarming new baseline” where child gun deaths will continue to rise.
Of those deaths in 2021, the analysis found that 64.3% were homicides, 29.9% were suicides, and 3.5% were the result of accidental injuries.
The burden of firearm homicides among children has disproportionately affected communities of color.
Black children were responsible for 67.3% of gun-related homicides, with the death rate almost doubling from 2020. White children were responsible for 78.4% of gun-related suicides.
Overall, black children accounted for half of all gun-related deaths.
According to Nirmita Panchal, a senior policy analyst at KFF, formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the differences between black and white children are consistent with findings from previous research.
“Communities of color have seen a sharp increase in these deaths compared to their white counterparts,” she said. Additionally, young gun injury survivors may face additional challenges beyond their physical trauma, she added. They are also more prone to developing mental health problems and substance use disorders.
When analyzing child gun deaths geographically, southern states — such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina — and Montana saw higher death tolls, although the analysis shows researchers are finding increasing rates in the Midwest.
Older youth aged 15 to 19 were responsible for 82.6% of gun-related deaths in 2021. Across the US, higher poverty rates correlated with higher gun death rates.
“Structural inequality, structural racism, social determinants of health and food insecurity are all major causes of violence,” including gun violence, Sathya said.
dr Emily Lieberman, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital, survived the shooting in Chicago’s Highland Park last year along with her husband and their two children.
“I wasn’t a hero that day. I didn’t save anyone, I didn’t help anyone but my family, and walking out of that day alive I knew I was changed forever,” she said.
Lieberman said she wishes she had been surprised by the latest statistics on gun fatalities among children. However, due to a lack of legislation from lawmakers dealing with guns, she expects the death toll will only be higher next year.
“We see countless children dying from gun violence every day,” she said. “It’s affecting everyone everywhere and it’s only going to get worse.”
Panchal noted that Congressmen have focused on youth mental health, including expanding school-based mental health services and providing trauma care.
Sathya said he has advocated for better background checks and safer gun storage. He also said that more research needs to be done on the root causes of gun violence.
“While we can say that this is an issue that may not affect everyone, it is actually true,” he said. “If you look at the increase in gunshot wounds, it’s affecting all communities. It doesn’t matter where you live.”