More teens carrying guns as firearm-related deaths increase for kids

Handgun (Photo by Thomas Def/Unsplash)

By Madeleine Pearce
Boston University News Service

As schools adjust their schedules to include active shooter drills and the debate on firearm restrictions continues, more guns are falling into the hands of adolescents. 

The number of teens carrying handguns increased by 41% from 2002 to 2019, according to a 2022 report from Boston College published in the Journal of Pediatrics. However, this increase isn’t consistent across all teens.

In a shift from the demographic of the early 2000s, the largest percentage to carry are now white teens, particularly male, from higher-income families in rural areas, while the number of teens carrying handguns has decreased among adolescents from lower-income families and among Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native children. 

“It’s really important for people to not assume they know what kind of kids carry guns, and that goes for pediatricians and public health workers,” said Naoka Carey, a doctoral student and co-author of the study. “You need to be educating families and young people about the risks for carrying a gun, whether they come from a low-income or high-income family.” 

Boston College’s study comes nearly a week after a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported firearm-related deaths overtook car accidents as the leading cause of death for adolescents in 2020. 

“Gun safety has become such a political issue it’s not considered a public health issue in the same way motor vehicle crashes are,” said Dr. Lois Lee, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Researchers said the emergence of gun violence as the leading cause of death for adolescents aligns with the rise of greater gun violence over the pandemic, including a 33.4% increase in homicides between 2019 and 2020. In 2020, suicides increased by 1.1%.

“Although the new data are consistent with other evidence that firearm violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the reasons for the increase are unclear,” researchers said in the letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. “Regardless, the increasing firearm-related mortality reflects a longer-term trend and shows that we continue to fail to protect our youth from a preventable cause of death.”

Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, where only 0.9% of adolescents reported carrying handguns in the state compared to 4.4% nationally

Despite a series of strict gun laws, Boston Public Schools have seen eight guns enter schools since last September. Of the eight, at least one was loaded at an elementary school. In response, Boston Safety of Our Schools is requesting the city of Boston to implement stronger safety measures in public schools, including metal detectors and plainclothes police officers. SOS told the Boston Herald that surveillance cameras at school entrances would also contribute to student safety. 

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu advocated to increase safety resources available to schools during her campaign, but has pushed against including metal detectors and police officers in schools.

“Metal detectors have been found to negatively impact students’ sense of safety at school, while school resource officers (SROs) disproportionately criminalize Black and Latinx students, perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline,” read a statement from Wu’s campaign plan. “We must immediately move to dismantle these punitive measures and reinvest in restorative justice practices employed by trusted, adult school community members.”

While a greater police presence in schools increases arrests and suspensions, studies differ on whether they make schools safer.

Nationally, the CDC continues to push for student safety in schools to prevent future gun violence.

“Generational investments are being made in the prevention of firearm violence, including new funding opportunities from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, and funding for the prevention of community violence has been proposed in federal infrastructure legislation,” researchers said in the letter to the New England Journal of Medicine. “This funding momentum must be maintained.”

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