It is worrying to note how often the US American media report stories such as that of a small boy who killed his brother with his father’s gun, or that of two young girls caught in the cross-fire from a shoot-out.
Martha Andrés Román
Alarm about such cases, which sometimes appear as isolated incidents in newspapers and on television, has heightened significantly following the recent publication of a report concluding that around 1,300 children aged under 17 die in the country every year as a result of firearms.
The study, published on 19 June in the magazine Pediatrics, also highlighted the fact that around 5,790 children and adolescents per year receive treatment for gunshot wounds.
These figures show that a little over three young people lose their lives because of guns every day, while 15 more receive emergency treatment for this type of injury
Tragedies in figures
To produce this report, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysed data on gun injuries and deaths in children aged between 0 and 17.
The study compiled information from three national databases that record statistics such as non-fatal injuries with a proven link to gun violence, forensic specialists’ records and reports on legal compliance, among other factors.
This methodology led investigators to conclude that 1,287 children and young people died each year on average between 2012 and 2014; this means that the United States is the country in which 9 out of every 10 such deaths in the world’s developed nations are reported.
Incidents linked to firearms caused more deaths in these age groups than birth defects, heart disease, influenza or pneumonia.
According to the investigation, the majority of deaths were in children aged between 13 and 15, and homicides accounted for 53% of reported incidents, with African-US American children being the largest group of victims.
The states with the highest rates of gun murders at these ages were largely concentrated in the south (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee).
Numbers were also high in the mid-west (Illinois, Missouri, Michigan and Ohio), two western states (California and Nevada) and three north-eastern states (Connecticut, Maryland and Pennsylvania).
The investigation shed light on an alarming uptick in suicides, which accounted for 38% of deaths between 2012 and 2014, with the highest numbers recorded in Montana, Idaho and Alaska. Around a third of cases involved a child showing signs of depression, with around a quarter of cases involving children with a clinically diagnosed mental health condition. In 26% of cases, the child told someone else ahead of time that they intended to take their own life.
The analysis presented in the report confirms that suicides often occur as a reaction to a short-term crisis. Access to a firearm may prove especially dangerous to an impulsive adolescent at such times, writes Dr Eliot W. Nelson, from the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital.
An ever-present danger
On 26 June, a nine-year-old boy was shot dead when he and a friend were playing with a gun, according to a police officer from Marion county, in the state of Indiana.
A few days earlier, four-year-old Bentley Thomas Koch died after shooting himself in the face in the state of Pennsylvania, and seven-year-old Harmony Warfield was shot by her two-year-old cousin in Tennessee.
Incidents of this kind heighten the controversy surrounding the right to bear arms by calling into question the safety measures taken to keep them out of reach of children.
Figures from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a non-profit organisation, show that around one in every three guns is kept loaded and without the safety on in the United States; meanwhile, most children know where their parents keep their guns.
In July 2004, the Secret Service and the Department of Education published a study focusing on 37 school shootings between 1974 and 2000. This analysis suggested that the attacker obtained a gun in their own home or in that of a relative in 65% of cases.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence argues that the necessary laws to prevent children from accessing guns are not in place at a federal level. Such laws would hold adults legally liable if they allowed children unsupervised access to firearms.
As a result, the level of control in this regard is imposed by the legal structures in place in each state.
This is a highly complex issue in a country of 321 million inhabitants and an estimated 300 million guns, in which the constitutional right to bear arms can be used as leverage by the gun lobby.
For Dr Ruth Abaya, attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the findings on the rate of gun violence affecting children suggest a need for community initiatives to address the topic. Meanwhile, David Wesson, a paediatric surgeon at the Texas Children’s Hospital, argues that this issue is highly politically sensitive and this could make it difficult to tackle.
However, he suggests as possible focal points the promotion of gun safety laws and the use of storage devices to keep weapons out of reach of children. (PL)
Photos: Pixabay – (Translated by Roz Harvey)