The Washington Post
Children dying by gunfire is a crisis
A society that cares enough to act could save young lives.
SHORTLY BEFORE Christmas, while walking to get after-school snacks outside Atlanta, 11-yearold Elyjah Munson was shot in the head by one of his best friends. His mother believes it was unintentional. Two weeks before Elyjah was killed, his 5-year-old cousin was fatally shot by a 3-year-old who had found a gun under a couch cushion. “It’s easy to get a gun,” said Elyjah’s mother. “It’s easy for our kids to get one.”
That tragic truth has enabled a sharp rise in the number of children and teenagers killed by gunfire in the United States since the start of the pandemic, a growing public health crisis that recent reporting from The Post and the New York Times has brought into focus. The rate of gun deaths of children 14 and younger, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited by the Times’s Jack Healy, rose by roughly 50 percent from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020. The problem appears to have worsened last year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, more than 1,500 youths under 18 died in homicides and unintentional shootings, compared with about 1,380 in 2020.
“An epidemic unique to the United States, where, on average, at least one child is shot every hour of every day,” was how a team of Post reporters described this deadly toll, profiling in heart-wrenching detail some of the young lives lost. Among them: Peyton “PJ” Evans, 8, who loved football and dreamed of being an NFL player; sisters Alyse Williams, 6, who wanted to be a doctor, and Ava, 9, an aspiring artist; and Sterlyn Bullock, 15, who aspired to be a nuclear physicist.
Researchers point to a number of factors. The pandemic’s stresses and deprivations have boosted homicides nationwide. The pandemic also spurred a surge in gun-buying. “There was just as much a run on guns as on toilet paper in the beginning of the pandemic,” said Los Angeles City Council member Marqueece Harris-dawson. That has resulted in more exposure to the risks — accidents, homicides and suicide — that firearms pose.
Children are particularly vulnerable. Troubled adolescents search out guns to use against themselves or others. Toddlers find guns in unlocked drawers, under piles of clothes, between sofa cushions, in glove compartments. Seemingly every day brings a headline about some young child finding an unsecured gun and shooting themselves, another child or an adult. These incidents are labeled accidents, but they are almost always preventable — if only the country had the political will to mandate safe-storage laws and hold adults, who allow deadly weapons to fall into children’s hands, accountable.
Equally tragic are the young people who get caught up — either as victims or as perpetrators — in cycles of seemingly endless violence. They wield guns, thinking they are protecting themselves, only to have their lives cut short or to end up in prison for taking someone else’s.
These tragedies are not sacrifices necessary to preserve a free society. Modest regulation imposing minimal levels of responsibility on gun owners would not gut the Second Amendment. But it would save children’s lives.