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New studies show why child gun deaths are rising since pandemic

Since January 2021, the University of Memphis BRAIN Center has provided free mental health services for trauma patients at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. The trauma care team includes (from right) Dr. Kiersten Hawes, Dr. Eraina Schauss, Dr. Regan Williams, graduate students Caitlynn Frazier and Sydnie Roberts. (Lisa Buser/Courtesy Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital)
Since January 2021, the University of Memphis BRAIN Center has provided free mental health services for trauma patients at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. The trauma care team includes (from right) Dr. Kiersten Hawes, Dr. Eraina Schauss, Dr. Regan Williams, graduate students Caitlynn Frazier and Sydnie Roberts. (Lisa Buser/Courtesy Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital)

Children are at higher risk for gun violence since the pandemic began, according to two new studies of child gunshot victims treated at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis.

That increased risk involves a variety of factors including the emotional and economic toll of the pandemic, the increasing number of firearms in homes and neighborhoods, failure by adults to store firearms securely, and more children spending more time at home and away from the social supports and relative safety of schools.

“During the height of the pandemic in 2020, accidental death by firearm in U.S. children increased by 30%,” researchers reported. “Children are more likely to be victims of gun violence if they live in homes with guns, especially those which are kept loaded or not securely stored.”

The results of the studies show “the critical need for integrated mental health care services for gun violence victims and their family members,” researchers reported. They also show the need for “hospital based violence intervention programs to address individual safety planning, education in safe gun storage, need for formal connections to community and school-based violence intervention services to reduce the risk of re-victimization and/or retaliatory violence, and long term post-discharge case management services.”

Both studies were based on lengthy interviews with more than 200 pediatric gun shot victims, ages 2 to 17, and their families. The interviews were conducted from March 2021 to March 2022 by researchers from the BRAIN Center at the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, and the University of North Texas.

The researchers are part of a pioneering program that provides free, trauma-informed mental and behavioral health services to all children (and their caregivers) treated at Le Bonheur for gunshot wounds and other traumatic injuries. The first study, “A Call to Action: The Rise of Pediatric Gun Violence During the COVID‑19 Pandemic,” involved 144 gunshot victims. It was published earlier this month by the Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma.

About 75 percent of the gunshot wounds were “intentional” — more than half the result of “community violence.” “Children exposed to traumatic events, such as gun and community violence, contend with many significant and sometimes devastating mental health effects,” researchers reported. “They have an increased likelihood of PTSD, suicidality, anxiety, depression, aggression, delinquency, decreased physical activity, weight-related physical health issues, school absences, a higher likelihood of becoming high school dropouts, and mental health-related visits to the emergency room.”

The second study, “Correlates of Intentional and Unintentional Firearm-Related Injuries among Pediatric Hospital Patients,” involved 87 gunshot victims. It’s currently under peer review. About 25 percent of the non-lethal gunshot wounds were unintentional, and about 80 percent of those “resulted from some misuse of the firearm (e.g., playing, handling, dropping the gun),” researchers reported. “The widespread gun culture in the United States normalizes firearm ownership and facilitates easy access to firearms for the average citizen,” researchers reported.

All of the young gunshot victims in both studies were from Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. “All three states are permitless carry states allowing citizens to carry, openly or concealed, a loaded handgun on their person without a permit, specific training, or a safety course,” researchers reported. Both studies showed that children of color and children of poverty “are disproportionately exposed and directly impacted by firearm violence.”

In 2020, the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, firearms surpassed automobile collisions as the number one cause of death in American children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the time of the studies, from March 2021 to March 2022, Le Bonheur recorded its highest numbers of pediatric gun violence victims.

The researchers concluded that the pandemic was one of several factors that conspired to increase pediatric gun violence. The others were:

The emotional, social and economic toll of the pandemic.

“Caregiver stress has led to an escalation of abuse in households.” “Increased economic pressure during the pandemic pushed some caregivers to enter the workforce or to work more, while the inability to work remotely led to decreased child supervision.”

“The increased social isolation and decreased peer support has caused increased mental health challenges and rates of self-inflicted gun injuries, particularly in adolescents.”

An increasing number of guns in homes and in the community.

“The rate of firearm purchases in the U.S. has rapidly increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. As indicated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, more
than 13.6 million background checks for gun purchases were completed between March 2020 and June 2020, resulting in a 42% increase from the same period during the previous year.”

“Further contributing to the rise in pediatric gun violence, people living with
children in the home have been more likely to purchase a new firearm during the pandemic.”

“Current evidence suggests a positive correlation between the rise in gun ownership and the rise in firearm-related pediatric injuries and fatalities.”

“The risk of suicide quadruples in U.S. children when the child lives in a home with a firearm, and in approximately 90% of cases of child suicide by firearm, the gun was accessed at the child’s own home or the home of a relative.”

The failure of adults to securely store their firearms.

“In households with both firearms and children, almost 50% of these homes do not keep firearms properly stored, and over 20% of children ages 5–14 who live in a home with firearms have handled the weapon without caregivers’ knowledge or permission.”

“Children are more likely to be victims of gun violence if they live in homes with guns, especially those which are kept loaded or not securely stored.”

More children spent more time at home and away from school during the pandemic.

“Teachers and guidance counselors have been limited in their ability to report suspected abuse due to school closures and social distancing.”

“Increased economic pressure during the pandemic pushed some caregivers to
enter the workforce or to work more, while the inability to work remotely led to decreased child supervision..”

“The lack of gun storage safety in the U.S. further fuels this crisis. Recent
data show that children have been left at home unsupervised far more often since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The two studies were led by Dr. Eraina Schauss, founding director of the BRAIN Center; Dr. Regan Williams, trauma medical director at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Haley Zettler of the College of Health and Public Service at the University of North Texas.

Their research received funding from the Urban Child Institute (UCI), the Children’s Foundation of Memphis, and the Assisi Foundation. UCI also supports the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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