Retirees Association

Kids and gun violence, by Mary Kenton

Chart showing leading cause of death for children

Excerpt from the Winter 2023 issue of The Extension

In 2020, gun violence surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children.

Gun violence is a shocking phenomenon that permeates every aspect of life in the United States. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about some sort of shooting death. The New York Times reported on January 18 that a fifth-grade girl who was president of her class was fatally shot in Syracuse as she was walking home from the store where she had gone to buy milk. She was not the intended target; she innocently walked into the wrong place at the worst time. The intended target, a 19-year-old man, was shot in the leg and recovered. On Martin Luther King Day, a deranged losing candidate in New Mexico fired into the house of the winner, narrowly missing his young daughter as she lay in her bed.

Chart from the New England Journal of Medicine, 2022: “Crossing Lines—A Change in the Leading Cause of Death Among U.S. Children” by LK Lee

Children are not always on the receiving end of gun violence. On January 6 of this year a six-year-old took a gun to school in Virginia and deliberately shot his teacher, who acted heroically to protect her other students, though her wounds were life threatening. On January 14, The Washington Post reported finding at least eleven other school shootings by children no older than 10. Each story is harrowing, especially reading how such young children had access to loaded firearms.

We have statistics on suicide, homicide, and accidental death by gun. We know who usually gets killed: young black men, family members, school children, police officers. So why is it as a society that we often seem unable to attack a problem that kills tens of thousands of Americans annually? Many people point to the Supreme Court’s 2008 5-to-4 ruling in the District of Columbia v. Heller. In that case the Court, for the first time, ruled that the right to own a gun was an individual right unrelated to service in a well-regulated militia. The Court did not make the right absolute, allowing exceptions for felons and the mentally ill.

The Court has upheld, refined, and extended the rights conferred in the decision. Just two years later in 2010, the Court extended the right to all 50 states in McDonald v. Chicago. They ruled that the Second Amendment was incorporated in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore all Americans had a right to own a gun for self-protection. This individual right superseded a state’s right to restrict gun ownership, though states could continue to bar felons and the mentally ill from possessing guns. The Court also declared that disallowing guns inside schools was constitutional. In subsequent cases the Court decided in 2015 how felons could sell or transfer their guns to third parties. A 2016 ruling declared that the amendment covered guns and other weapons not in existence at the time of the founding. In mid-January 2023, the Court declined to consider a challenge brought by gun dealers to a variety of New York measures to regulate (but not bar) gun purchases.

Early in January Illinois implemented an assault weapons ban, and in less than a week a group of almost 1,000 plaintiffs in Effingham County filed suit claiming their constitutional rights were violated by the legislation. An emergency hearing was scheduled “to restore the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to bear arms while this matter proceeds through the Courts.” Given the current Supreme Court, it is unlikely that the legislation will be allowed to stand intact.

What can parents do to protect their children? The place where parents have the greatest impact is in the home. The homes safest from gun violence are homes in which there are no guns at all. Living in a safe neighborhood also offers some protection. But ultimately, we are all at risk for living in a society where millions are armed to the teeth. It is up to us as individuals to decide how to cope with this reality. The free-range childhood that many baby boomers enjoyed is no longer viable. More and more kids spend most of their free time indoors in front of various screens. Necessary? Maybe. Sad? Absolutely.

Editor's note: The chart is taken from the New England Journal of Medicine, 2022: “Crossing Lines—A Change in the Leading Cause of Death Among U.S. Children,” by LK Lee