Editor’s note: Eye on Ohio is presenting a series of reports on gun violence in the United States produced by News21, which brings together outstanding journalism students from across the country to work with professional journalists on investigative projects. It is based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Arizona.
Today’s story focuses on the number of children and youth who are killed by guns. Ohio has experienced such tragedy – not just in the well-known school shooting in Chardon in February 2012 – but in every-day street violence, teen suicides and accidental deaths, such as incidents in which a child gets hold of a gun and thinks it’s a toy.
In 2009, the Ohio Department of Health, Violence and Injury Prevention received funding to become part of the National Violent Death Reporting System of the National Centers for Disease Control. Data on violent deaths now is being collected from law enforcement agencies, county coroners’ offices, public health departments and federal crime bureaus to paint an exact picture of where, how and in some cases why such deaths occur.
In 2011, the last year for which Ohio data was available from the CDC, 104 children under the age of 19 lost their lives to gun violence
For every U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan during 11 years of war, at least 13 children were shot and killed in America.
More than 450 children didn’t make it to kindergarten.
Another 2,700 were killed by a firearm before they could sit behind the wheel of a car.
Every day, on average, seven children were shot dead.
A News21 investigation of child and youth deaths in America between 2002 and 2012 found that at least 28,000 children and teens 19-years-old and younger were killed with guns. Teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 made up over two-thirds of all youth gun deaths in America.
The News21 findings are compiled in the most complete database to date from records obtained from 49 state health departments and FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports.
“It’s an unacceptable number and it should be regardless of where you stand on gun-owning ideology,” said Colette Martin, a member of Parents Against Gun Violence. “The numbers are that high and we are as a country ignoring them.”
Most of those killed by firearms, 62 percent, were murdered and the majority of victims were black children and teens. Suicides resulted in 25 percent of the firearm deaths of young people: The majority of them were white. More than 1,100 children and teens were killed by a gun that accidentally discharged.
An epidemic of violence
Zeke Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, a Baltimore youth advocacy group, said the dialogue on guns only seems to pierce the national consciousness when a mass shooting occurs in an affluent white suburban community.
The American gun debate, he said, rarely takes into account the number of black youth who are murdered every day.
“We as a country tolerate violence when it is in low-income black communities,” Cohen said. “Because we’ve come to accept that the acceptable face of gun deaths is black, we allow it to continue to happen.”
Dawnya Johnson was 11 years old when her already broken life was shattered further. Her mother was addicted to drugs, her father was in prison, and she was tossed from foster home to foster home. She found solace in her older cousin, but that protection was left on a bloody sidewalk. Johnson’s cousin was shot six times in the back and he bled to death before the ambulance got to the scene. He was 17.
“He had taken on the role of two people who were unable to take care of me at that time,” Johnson said. “This beam of support had been ripped from under me.”
Her cousin had lost his job and started selling drugs to make ends meet. When Johnson’s foster families wouldn’t give her food or buy her clothes, he always found a way to get her what she needed.
“My cousin made sure that I had the basic stuff and that I had Nikes and looked fresh every day,” Johnson said. “No kid would ever know if we were homeless or I was hungry walking in the door.”
A young black girl growing up on her own in inner-city Baltimore, in a state with one of the highest percentages of black youth gun deaths in the nation, Johnson said she doesn’t live in fear.
“I’ve become desensitized to fear,” Johnson said. “Once something happens so many times and it repeats itself it becomes something that you don’t fear.”
Jennifer Rauhouse, executive director of Peer Solutions, an Arizona-based organization that looks to prevent violence from occurring, said gun violence can be connected to other issues, such as child abuse, sexual abuse and bullying.
“If we don’t get to the heart of the question of gun violence, we’re doomed,” said Rauhouse, who founded the organization.
Eli Chevalier, a high school senior and member of Peer Solutions, said the group works to prevent violence by teaching middle- and high-school students that respect and equality – not violence – should be what normal life is about.
“People won’t turn to drugs and violence if they have respect and equality in their lives and in their relationships,” Chevalier said.
Cohen started The Intersection in Baltimore after he was held at gunpoint in his Maryland apartment and realized how many children live with gun violence in their neighborhoods. Johnson, an active member and student leader of The Intersection, lives with it every day.
“For my students, it’s having hope and feeling like they are playing a constructive role in bettering their communities,” Cohen said. “One of the challenges when you’re dealing with communities is that the victims of the gun violence often have a feeling of disenfranchisement.”
All of the students at The Intersection have been affected by gun violence. They’ve lost family or friends, been shot at or found themselves in the middle of shootouts.
“Our students are attempting to change that narrative and dismantle the amount of violence in our city,” Cohen said.
Maryland had one of the highest percentages of black youth gun deaths from 2002 to 2012. In 11 years, more than 600 black youth were shot and killed in their homes or on the street.
“Kids are getting killed, but the reality is America has played such a role in shaping these communities, there is a responsibility that we have to solve this problem,” Cohen said. He said gun violence encompasses issues of race and poverty as well as access to firearms.
“There is too much access. It’s easier for a child to buy a firearm in Baltimore than it is to buy a pack of cigarettes,” Cohen said. “The less guns that are available, the less gun deaths we are going to have, but that doesn’t solve the problem.”
“This is not a Maryland problem, this is an American problem.”
One gun, one moment
Suicide is another tragic outcome of youth having access to guns. Suicides by gunfire accounted for the majority of gun deaths among white youth. For the 11 years studied, an average of 644 youths killed themselves with a gun every year.
“A gun doesn’t cause the suicide, but a suicidal person with access to a gun is far more likely to die from an attempt than someone using another method,” said Elaine Frank, the director of Counseling on Access to Lethal Means. “It’s the combination of accessibility, familiarity, lethality and really short time frame that’s offered by a firearm.”
In New Hampshire, where CALM is based, more than 95 percent of all young people killed by guns were white and 70 percent of them committed suicide, News21 found.
As a former program director of the injury prevention center at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, Frank helped develop a state plan for suicide prevention. She said guns laws alone won’t prevent suicide and that family, community and cultural change are needed.
“We are not anti-gun, we aren’t saying that gun use is a problem or gun ownership is a problem,” Frank said. “What we are opposed to is gun misuse and we do consider the ill-attempt by a child misuse.”
Many children in New Hampshire, a largely rural state, grow up with guns and are taught gun safety; teenagers often know where the guns are kept.
“If someone is suicidal and if they have easy access to highly lethal means, specifically firearms, it greatly increases the risk that if they do make an attempt it will be a lethal attempt,” Frank said.
Seventy-three percent of gun deaths of youth in Vermont are suicides.
“Particularly in young people, the time of risk is often very short,” Frank said. “The time from making the decision to make an attempt, to actually making an attempt can be very, very short. There’s not enough time to say I don’t want to do this.”
Unintentional bullets are just as destructive
Accidents involving guns are the third-largest cause of firearm deaths for youths, after murder and suicide. From 2002 to 2012, more than 1,100 children were killed by a gun that accidentally discharged, the News21 analysis showed.
James Parker was 12 years-old when he was shot and killed accidentally by a family member. He was hunting with his dad, uncle and step brother in Wake Forest, North Carolina, when a shotgun blast took his life.
Sincere Tymere Smith was two when he fatally shot himself with his father’s gun on Christmas in Conway, South Carolina. His father, who bought the gun after a break-in at their home, was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the toddler grabbed the gun as it was lying on the table and shot himself in the chest.
Ryder Rozier was three when he stumbled across a gun in his uncle’s bedroom and shot himself in the head in Guthrie, Oklahoma. The gun belonged to his uncle, a state trooper.
Neegnco Xiong was 2 when he was shot by his 4-year-old brother, who found a gun under their father’s pillow in Minneapolis. The gun did not have a safety on it. The father was charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangerment of a child.
William Rees was 14 when he shot himself at his grandparent’s house in Fremont County, Idaho. He was shooting targets when his pistol went off and pierced his abdomen.
All were killed in 2012.
“Any gun that ends up in the hands of a child is first passed through the hands of an adult,” said Colette Martin, a member of Parents Against Gun Violence. “We have a lot of responsibility and accountability when it comes to legal gun owners who allow children to access their guns unsupervised.”
Teens between 15 and 19 were the most likely to be killed by the unintentional pull of a trigger, accounting for half of accidental deaths among children and youth.
“These are the cases that keep me up at night because they are 100 percent preventable,” said Martin, a gun owner and stay-at-home mom, “and I will not be swayed from that belief.”
Whether homicide, suicide or accident, every four hours a child’s life was taken by a bullet during the 11-year period from 2002 to 2012. That’s the equivalent of the Sandy Hook massacre every three days.
More than 19,000 high school-aged students never got to walk across the stage and get a diploma.
“No gun law is going to change anything at this point,” Rauhouse said. “We make it about the guns and we’re not worried about our kids. People should be focusing on why gun violence exists and trying to prevent it from occurring.”
Other gun-control activists argue that gun-storage laws need to be enacted and implemented.
“Gun-storage laws with teeth behind them would stop some of the gun deaths that happen in homes,” said Martin, of Parents Against Gun Violence. “It’s a really important piece of federal law that’s missing. Responsible gun owners do it already, it’s not an infringement of a Second Amendment right.”
Twenty-eight states and Washington D.C. have child access prevention laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. These laws impose criminal liability on adults who do not properly store their guns when children are in the house.
“The gun lobby is very powerful. Elected officials are out of step with what the general public wants,” said Gerry Hills, founder of Arizonans for Gun Safety. “Americans are not serious about protecting youths and preventing gun violence.”
Child gun deaths: how News21 got the story
News21 requested and analyzed records from every state’s health department from 2002 to 2012, or the latest year available, regarding all gun deaths of persons aged 0-19 broken down by manner of death and race. Sometimes, the information was provided in online databases.
Because of various state laws and health department policies, complete information was not always provided and certain records were suppressed for reasons of confidentiality. Additionally, because states have differing standards about what kind of information is collected, there was variety in the quality and formatting of the data. Some states charged money for the records, with News21 paying a total of $702.80 for records from five states. Others required News21 to fill out research request forms.
Rhode Island was the only state that refused to provide any data to News21.