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

The Costs of Gun Violence against Children
Philip J. Cook Jens Ludwig

Guns and Youth Violence

Guns exact a huge toll on America's children and youth, both in terms of lives lost and in terms of quality of life. (See the articles by Fingerhut and Christoffel and by Garbarino, Bradshaw, and Vorrasi in this journal issue.) Injury data for American youths under age 20 reveal that the threat of gun violence differs widely by sex, race, and ethnicity: 85% of all gun fatalities involving young victims are males (a 5.5 to 1 disparity with females), and the racial gaps are even greater. Table 1 presents the relevant statistics for gun fatalities and, for the sake of comparison, for highway fatalities. The statistics are limited to males, as they constitute the bulk of these fatalities. The racial and ethnic patterns for females' gun fatalities follow the same patterns, at a lower incidence level.

These statistics reveal large racial disparities in homicide rates due to gun violence; the rate for black males is 2.4 times as high as that for Hispanic males, and 15.3 times as high as that for non-Hispanic white males. For black families, the chance of their male children dying from a gunshot wound is 62% higher than the chance of dying in a motor vehicle crash. For Hispanics, the chance of dying by gunfire is about the same as that of dying in a crash, whereas for whites, motor vehicles are a greater threat than guns.

To translate these threats into more meaningful terms, consider a black family with two boys. What is the chance (given the firearm death rates that prevailed in 1998) that the parents will lose one of their sons to gunfire by age 20? The answer is about 1 in 115, or close to 1%, with almost all of that risk coming from homicide. For whites, the answer is about 1 in 512, with most of the risk stemming from suicide. Hispanics are in between, at about 1 in 260, mostly from homicide. These statistics are for fatalities; for every gun homicide victim, there are five or six gunshot victims who survive, some with permanent disabilities. For unintentional shootings, the ratio of nonfatal to fatal injuries is roughly 13 to 1. Thus, the hypothetical black family faces at least a 1-in-20 chance that one of their sons will be shot while growing up. That is a national average: The risk is many times higher if they live in an Atlanta housing project than in a Boston suburb. However, even the national averages are high enough to highlight the importance of gun violence as a threat to children's safety.

Of course, guns are not the only weapons used to perpetrate assaults. In the United States in 1998, more than three million violent crimes were committed against people under age 21,6 and fewer than 10% of them involved a gun.6–8 The significance of gun violence is that its fatality rate is much higher than that of assaults with other weapons. As a result, nearly two-thirds of homicides in 1998 were committed with a gun. The same pattern holds for suicide: 50,000 or more adolescents attempt suicide each year,9 but most fatalities occur in the relatively small fraction of attempts in which a gun was used. It appears that whether victims of violence live or die depends to a great extent on the type of weapon available to the perpetrator.10

Guns also have a unique capacity to project fear, simply because security against them is harder to buy than for knives, clubs, and fists. Drive-by knifings and accidental beatings are virtually unheard of. On the other hand, guns kill at a distance and stray bullets may find an unintended victim almost anywhere. The perception of risk—of no safe place—is further exacerbated by the sound of gunfire.

In short, the type of weapon matters. Guns intensify violence and spread terror in heavily impacted neighborhoods. As a result, the goal of separating guns from violence is an important one, somewhat distinct from the goal of reducing overall violence rates. Even if a program to reduce gun use resulted in a one-for-one replacement of assaults and suicide attempts with other weapons instead of guns, this outcome would still be socially beneficial because the injuries would be less serious on average, and the impacts on neighborhoods would be less severe. Fewer families would lose a child to violence.