As a professional demographer who’s worked with mortality data for more than two decades, getting a little numb to the numbers can be an occupational hazard. Flagging population trends so that policymakers can take action is rewarding work, but it requires a certain level of detachment—otherwise, the grief of every car crash or drowning would become overwhelming.
But some days are different.
Yesterday, at least 19 children and two adults were killed at their elementary school. I am writing this, with tears in my eyes, after dropping off my own second grader at our local elementary school.
The grief we feel as a nation over this tragedy is real. The terror I feel as a parent is nearly paralyzing. But paralysis won’t solve this problem. My professional life is dedicated to numbers and here’s one that every American should consider: 31,780.
That’s how many children in the U.S. under age 18 have died from gun violence in the 20 years between 2000 and 2020.
31,780 children who will never get to hug their mom again.
31,780 children who never got a chance to grow up. To start a family of their own. To vote.
Gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children in the United States. In 2020, for the first time in decades, more children ages 17 and younger died from guns than from motor vehicle crashes. That’s not because there were fewer car crashes in 2020, but because the number of gun deaths rose faster.
U.S. Child Deaths (Ages 0-17) Due to Firearms and Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010-2020
While suicide is the most common gun-related cause of death for American adults (representing 55% of adult gun deaths in 2020), 60% of children who died by firearm in 2020 were killed by someone else (1,376 children’s lives lost). For the 32% of children whose fatal injury was self-inflicted, easy access to guns made that possible in a way that is uniquely American. There are an estimated 390 million guns in this country, but it only took one to destroy the future of 19 fourth graders and two teachers in Texas yesterday.
And as grim as they are, these mortality numbers tell only part of the story. For each child lost, there are shattered family members and grieving friends. Those numbers don’t convey the impact on the survivors of gun violence who often suffer from serious injuries and psychological trauma. (In 2020, 11,258 children went to the emergency room with nonfatal gunshot wounds.) And the numbers cannot begin to capture the traumatic impact of gun violence on all of us as a society. As just one example, one study found that mothers who witnessed at least one local shooting were up to 60% more likely to meet criteria for depression than mothers who did not.
What Can We Do?
Despite more than two decades of a federal freeze on funding gun violence research, we know that there are effective ways to reduce gun violence and gun deaths. For example, safe gun storage works. Research on child access prevention (CAP) laws links them to a 17% reduction in firearm-related homicides committed by juveniles.
In their report Dying Young in The United States: What’s Driving High Death Rates Among Americans Under Age 25 and What Can Be Done?, Richard Rogers and colleagues propose a thorough list of research-backed policy solutions to reduce gun deaths among children and youth, including the following:
- Institute universal background checks, waiting periods, and gun safety training.
- Establish a robust federal database of gun owners and create a national firearm licensing system.
- Repeal concealed-carry licenses.
- Ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks.
- Restrict gun ownership by persons with criminal records, pass extreme risk protection order laws, and use restraining and ex parte orders to reduce gun access among youth and people at risk of harming themselves or others (for example, in cases of domestic abuse).
- Increase the legal age to buy a gun.
- Fund research into the risk factors for and effects of gun violence to support evidence-based policy decisions to reduce gun injuries and deaths.
The evidence shows that these common-sense practices could make a big difference. There are 31,780 good reasons to put them into action.
Data sources: CDC WONDER Underlying Cause of Death and CDC WISQARS Nonfatal Injury Data.