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How gun violence impacts kids — and what parents can do about it

What the latest research shows about how firearm violence affects kids. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)
What the latest research shows about how firearm violence affects kids. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

Firearm violence has repeatedly made headlines over the past few decades, especially when children are involved. Children have been seriously injured or killed by guns through school shootings, accidental injury, suicide and more, making this something experts say parents need to pay attention to. Just yesterday, a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl victory parade resulted in several children being treated for gunshot wounds, as well as the death of a mom of two.

"Parents should know that firearm injuries are now the No.1 leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents," Dr. Jennifer A. Hoffmann, attending physician in the Division of Emergency Medicine at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "It's a very important problem that requires attention and resources — and we're far behind where we should be."

Firearm violence can impact children in other ways, too. "In addition to deaths, firearms have caused a huge number of injuries in children," Dr. Eric Fleegler, associate physician in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. Children who are victims of shootings can suffer from lifelong physical disabilities, as well as mental health consequences like depression, anxiety and substance abuse, Hoffmann says.

"Some parents may think, 'This won't affect my family and my children,' but the fact of the matter is that this affects all children, including those who go to school," Dr. Annie Andrews, a pediatrician and senior adviser to Everytown for Gun Safety, tells Yahoo Life. "They're now learning how to hide from a 'bad guy with a gun' at school."

Here's what the research says about how gun violence impacts kids — and what you can do to help protect your family.

What does research say about how firearm violence impacts kids?

Data on firearm violence and children encompasses intentional shootings, accidental shootings and suicide, giving a wide lens on how guns affect kids in this country. Here's a snapshot of what's happening.

  • The number of children and teens killed by gunfire in the U.S. jumped 50% between 2019 and 2021, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 1,732 gun deaths in American children and teens under the age of 18 in 2019; that number increased to 2,590 in 2021.

  • Some groups are more impacted than others. That same Pew Research analysis found that Black children and teens were about five times as likely as their white counterparts to die from gun violence in 2021. Boys are also more likely to die from gun violence than girls: The analysis found that boys made up 83% of gun deaths in children and teens in 2021, while girls accounted for 17% of those deaths.

  • A November 2023 study published in Health Affairs analyzed commercial health insurance claims of 2,052 child and teen gunshot survivors. Those were compared with a control group of 9,983 similar young people who did not experience gun injuries. The researchers also analyzed data from 6,209 family members of survivors and compared them with 29,877 peers who didn't have a similar experience. The researchers found that survivors of gun violence had a 68% increase in psychiatric disorders and a 144% increase in substance use disorders compared to people in the control group. They also averaged $34,884 more in health care spending in the first year after their injury compared to the control group, and 17 times more than what they spent on health care before their injury. Parents of injured children also had a 30% increase in psychiatric disorders compared to those whose children didn't have gunshot injuries.

  • A 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of CDC data found that children who are exposed to guns — from domestic violence, firearms stored at home and neighborhood and school violence — were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. Survivors of firearm-related injuries were also more likely to struggle in school.

  • The Kaiser Family Foundation analysis also found that suicide deaths by firearm made up nearly half of suicides in children and teens. While suicide deaths from other means have dropped in youth since 2018, suicide deaths by firearm increased 26% in youth from 2019 to 2021.

  • A 2023 analysis from researchers at Iowa State University analyzed data on mass shootings between 1966 to 2020, and found that the U.S. has experienced 173 mass shootings during that time period, with at least one a year since 1966. The researchers also found that states with the highest risk of mass shooting had the largest populations: California, Texas, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

  • Infants exposed to gun violence before birth — particularly during the first six months of pregnancy – have an increased likelihood of being born premature or with a low birthweight, according to a 2023 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Why should parents pay attention to this?

Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon and director of Northwell Health's Center for Gun Violence Prevention, tells Yahoo Life that parents shouldn't assume firearm violence can't impact their family. "The most likely reason your child is going to die in this country is a firearm," he says. "Whether you live in community A or community B, your child is at risk." Sathya notes that his pediatric trauma center has seen a 350% increase in children being shot in recent history. "Parents never think that it will be their kid, but it happens," he says.

While experts stress that school shootings make up a small percentage of firearms deaths in children in the U.S., research has found that kids often get the guns involved in these shootings at home. A JAMA study of 262 teens who shot firearms in 253 school shootings over 26 years found that the guns were usually stolen from family members or relatives of the children.

But Sathya says children need to be educated about gun safety, and that any guns should be stored safely in the home. Still, he stresses that education only does so much, especially with younger children. A JAMA Pediatrics study published in July put kids in a playroom setting and monitored their interaction with hidden, unloaded guns. The researchers found that nearly all of the children in the study found the hidden guns and 53% of those actually handled the gun. Children who watched a gun safety video before entering the playroom were three times more likely to tell an adult they had found the guns compared to a group that watched a video on car safety. They were also less likely to touch the guns.

"Kids as young as age 3 will pull the trigger, even when parents think the guns are hidden away," Sathya says. "We can't rely solely on education of our kids to keep them safe."

How to talk to kids about it

Talking to children about gun violence is important, Hoffmann says. "You can use simple language such as, 'If you see a gun, don't touch it and tell an adult right away,'" she suggests. "Tell children that they won't get in trouble if they see a gun."

But access is a crucial aspect, too, Andrews says. "The most practical thing that I talk to parents of my own patients about is what we can do to prevent children from accessing unsecured guns," she says. "Those can lead to unintentional firearm injuries and deaths, suicides and guns showing up on school grounds."

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that, while the safest homes for children are ones without guns, parents who own firearms should store their weapons safely. That means storing guns in a safe or lockbox, using gun trigger locks and locking ammunition in a separate box. "The most effective way of preventing an injury is making sure they're stored, locked and unloaded, with ammo stored elsewhere," Andrews says.

Andrews also recommends asking parents in homes that children visit for playdates if there are guns in the house and if they're secured. "It's a practical thing," she says. "We talk about allergies; we should talk about guns."

Overall, experts stress the importance of storing guns safely, if you have them at all. "It's not about the Second Amendment — it's about safe storage," Sathya says. "There needs to be more of it."

This article was originally published on Nov. 28, 2023 and has been updated.