Why We Need to Talk about Guns and Youth
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that guns are a part of people’s lives in the South, where about 40 percent of households have guns. Growing up and living in North Carolina, I’ve known people who have owned and used guns regularly since their teen years. I think this is why, when the topic of gun control surfaces (most recently with President Obama’s executive actions), my Facebook feed becomes a battleground of opinions, often with a lot of hostility on both sides. But polarized conversations don’t help address gun injuries and deaths, which is unfortunate, because our children’s lives depend on it. In 2014, over 6,500 young people from birth through age 24 died by firearms, and in 2013, over 29,000 were injured., Beyond the number of deaths and injuries in any given year, guns affect youth in several concrete ways.
- As highly efficient and effective weapons, guns raise the likelihood of our youth completing an attempted suicide or murder. Homicides and suicides are the second and third leading causes of death for adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19, respectively. About 88 percent of teen homicide deaths and 41 percent of teen suicide deaths involved guns. In 2013, just over one in six high school students (17 percent) seriously considered committing suicide and eight percent actually attempted it. Guns make suicide attempts much more effective – 85 percent of suicide attempts with a gun result in death. Unfortunately, guns are the most popular method for committing suicide, accounting for over a half of male suicide attempts (54 percent) and nearly a third of female ones (29 percent). Also, the risk of suicide is four to 10 times higher in homes with a gun than homes without one, even if the gun is locked up. Guns pose similar concerns for homicide as suicide. Researchers estimate that guns are, at minimum, twice as effective as knives at killing. Gun availability has also been linked to an increased risk of intimate partner violence and delinquency/crime.
- Many households with guns still are not practicing standard gun safety procedures, which may harm our youngest children. While firearm injuries and deaths affect adolescents most, access to guns can pose a significant danger to children as young as five. One in five children who have been shot, dies. While parents may think that they have kept their firearms safely away from children, nearly three-quarters of children under the age of 10 know where their parents keep their firearms, and over a third reported handling the weapons without their parents knowing. Over one million households with children have a gun that is easily accessible (i.e., unlocked and either loaded or unloaded with ammunition in the same place).
- Blacks and Latinos bear the brunt of gun violence. Black and, to a much lesser extent, Latino men are the groups most affected by gun violence in the United States, particularly when it comes to homicides. Analyses of CDC data find that blacks and Latinos are more likely to die by gun homicides than whites, and in contrast to other races, firearms were the leading cause of injury for blacks under the age of 25 instead of motor vehicles (the leading cause of injury for all other races and ethnicities in that age). These numbers play a role in how youth from racial and ethnic minorities view their own safety – in a survey, 73 percent of blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans collectively reported they worried about being personally affected by gun violence in the future.
Even with these sobering facts, we shouldn’t lose hope. It’s possible to reduce the negative impact of guns. Programs exist that address and prevent the root causes of violence among youth. Counseling by pediatricians about gun safety, coupled with the distribution of tools (e.g., handgun lock box or trigger lock), shows promise in improving safe gun storage, which can reduce unintentional injuries. New technologies, such as firearms with biometric locks, may also help. Additional research can help us determine innovative solutions at the societal and individual levels. However, to significantly reduce the impact of guns, we all need to be part of the development of solutions, especially gun owners. Estimates vary, but surveys indicate that roughly one in three U.S. households owns a gun, a sizeable part of the population. And despite my Facebook feed, collaboration is possible: groups, such as the New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition, are bringing together diverse interests to reduce firearm deaths. We just need this cooperation to spread – our youth are counting on us.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Compressed Mortality File 1999-2014 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December 2015. Data are from the Compressed Mortality File 1999-2014 Series 20 No. 2T, 2015, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/cmf-icd10.html on Jan 28, 2016.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 20 Leading Causes of Nonfatal Violence-Related Injury, United States (2013, all races, both sexes, all cases, ages 0-24). Accessed at http://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/nfilead2001.html on January 28, 2016.