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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations
Kathleen Reich Patti L. Culross Richard E. Behrman

Gun Deaths and Injuries among Children and Youth (3/3)

Unintentional Shooting Deaths

Unintentional shootings among young people most frequently happen when children or youth obtain a gun and play with it, not realizing that it is real, or loaded, or pointed at themselves or a friend. In 1998, more than 7% of children and youth under age 20 killed by firearms died in unintentional shootings,36 and these shootings accounted for 27% of firearm deaths among children under age 12, according to the article by Fingerhut and Christoffel. Boys, African American children, and Hispanic children are more likely to die in accidental shootings than are other groups of children. The death rate from unintentional shootings among children is nine times higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized nations combined.37

Although accidental shootings of children have declined significantly in recent decades, they still attract a great deal of public attention, perhaps because the victims, and sometimes even the perpetrators, are seen as blameless and the deaths preventable. If guns were not present in the home, if they were designed with safety features making them difficult for children to fire, or if they were stored safely—unloaded and locked, with ammunition stored separately from the guns—the risk to young children could be virtually eliminated.

Firearm Injuries

For every gun death among young people under age 20, there are more than four injuries. Although the data about nonfatal firearm-related injuries to children and youth are incomplete,38 the article by Fingerhut and Christoffel summarizes what is known: From 1996–1998, an estimated 18,400 children and youth visited emergency departments for gun injuries each year, with nearly one-half of these visits requiring hospitalization. About 85% of these firearm injuries were among older teens, ages 15 to 19. Males were 7 times more likely than females to be injured. African American youth were 10 times more likely and Hispanic youth 2 times more likely to be injured than were white youth.

The Need for Better Data

To develop and evaluate policies for reducing youth gun injuries and deaths, policymakers need more complete data on how firearms are used by and against children and youth. Although 13 national data systems collect information about persons who are killed or injured in the United States, none of these systems is designed to capture information about firearm deaths and nonfatal injuries generally, or about firearm victimization of children and youth specifically. A substantial number of cases lack vital information about shootings involving children and youth, such as the victim–offender relationship, alcohol or drug involvement, the location where the shooting occurred, crime and gang involvement, and the frequency with which injuries occur.39

Without more complete data, policymakers and researchers cannot answer many basic questions about gun violence among children and youth, or use data to design effective interventions.40 For example, because public health professionals do not know the circumstances most likely to result in children and youth being shot, they may not know where to focus prevention efforts. In addition, ATF has concluded, “Insufficient information about how minors and criminals illegally acquire guns has impeded efforts to investigate and arrest illegal suppliers of firearms.”41 Two major efforts to improve data collection related to youth and guns are under way; they should be supported and expanded.

National Reporting on Violent Deaths and Injuries

To obtain more data about firearm victimization of children and youth, a consortium of universities has developed a pilot program for reporting violent deaths: the National Violent Injury Statistics System (NVISS). This system collects data on all violent deaths, including firearm-related deaths, in seven states and six cities and counties, and reports on more than 50 variables by aggregating information from existing data sources.42 NVISS is modeled on the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which reports information on fatal auto accidents. FARS is credited with providing information that has led to numerous policy changes, including raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.43

A national violent death reporting system—or better yet, a violent death and nonfatal injury reporting system—would document patterns of violence nationwide, yield more complete data about firearm violence, and support policymakers' efforts to develop strategies for reducing all forms of violence, including gun violence. Full national implementation of such a system would cost an estimated $20 million per year.44 This investment would be worthwhile if it could lead to more effective strategies for reducing youth gun violence, which has been estimated to cost society $15 billion a year, as detailed later in this article.

Tracing Guns Used in Crimes

In a separate data collection effort, ATF has launched the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative to document circumstances under which youth obtain guns used in crimes. Under this program, law enforcement agencies in 36 cities submit serial numbers to ATF for all guns that they seize in crimes.45 ATF then traces these guns to their original point of sale in an effort to identify sources of illegal gun trafficking to youth.

Already, the program has uncovered important information about where youth obtain illegal guns. The gun traces have revealed that between 25% and 36% of traced guns that were used by youth to commit crimes are new guns (less than three years old), often sold illegally to youth by corrupt licensed firearms dealers, or illegally bought for youth by adult purchasers (called “straw” purchases).41 Expanding the gun tracing program to more U.S. cities would give researchers a better understanding of where and how youth obtain illegal guns, and would inform efforts to prevent illegal sales to young people.


Federal, state, and local public health and law enforcement agencies should make a commitment to collecting better data about gun-related fatalities and injuries by supporting development of a national system for reporting violent deaths and injuries and a system for tracing all guns used in crimes.