Gun Violence and American Children

The United States has extraordinarily high numbers of both single-event homicides and mass shootings, both of which often involve children.

The United States has disproportionately high numbers of firearm-related deaths compared with most of its peer countries.1 In 2016, the United States experienced 37,200 gun-related deaths, compared with 455 in Japan, 274 in Australia, and 54 in New Zealand. The United States has extraordinarily high numbers of both single-event homicides and mass shootings, both of which often involve children.

Handguns are the most common means of suicide and homicide in the United States. Gun violence killed 7,580 U.S. children and young adults under age 25 in 2019; 39% of these deaths were suicides, while 61% were homicides. In fact, individuals under age 25 accounted for almost one-third (32%) of all U.S. homicides by firearm in 2019.2

Common explanations for the high rate of U.S. gun-related deaths are the prevalence of gun ownership (an estimated 32% of individuals or 44% of households), lax regulation of specific types of weapons, exposure to violence in the media, and insufficient mental health care.3 Many American gun owners keep their firearms loaded, unlocked, and easily accessible in their homes and cars and on their person.4 Removing immediate access to firearms reduces suicide rates. Gun regulations differ across states, which further challenges safety measures.5

What Can We Learn From Other Countries?

Other nations have enacted—by American standards—relatively stringent gun laws. For instance, following a shooting that left 14 people dead, Canada “imposed a twenty-eight-day waiting period for purchases; mandatory safety training courses; more detailed background checks; bans on large-capacity magazines; and bans or greater restrictions on military-style firearms and ammunition.”6 More recently, Canada moved to ban military-style assault weapons outright, prohibiting their purchase, sale, use, and importation within national borders. Japan and Israel limit civilians to shotguns and air rifles and require extensive safety training, licensing, and mental health screening. Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have national registries and policies that require individuals to demonstrate their need to own a firearm.

Mandatory gun buybacks and outright bans akin to those implemented in New Zealand and the United Kingdom are likely to be less well received in the United States, largely because many Americans are reluctant to sell their guns to the government and perceive gun culture as tied to the country’s revolutionary origins and frontier history. Nevertheless, most Americans support further regulation of gun ownership.7 States that have passed more restrictive gun laws have lower firearm-related mortality rates.8

Potential Policy Solutions

  • Institute universal background checks, waiting periods, and gun safety training.
  • Establish a robust federal database of gun owners.
  • 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.
  • Increase the legal age to buy a gun.
  • Offer gun buyback programs.
  • 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).
  • Integrate focused deterrence interventions and community policing practices into local law enforcement agencies, and hospital-based interventions at the national level.
  • Fund research into the risk factors for and effects of gun violence.
  • Promote media reporting guidelines designed to stop sensationalizing coverage of shootings.
  • Expand access to high-quality mental health care.

The United States could drastically reduce mortality in early life and at other ages by reducing gun-related deaths. Compared with other high-income countries, the United States has the highest prevalence of gun ownership and the most lax gun laws, which the data show is a lethal combination. In a 2019 analysis of 29 high-income countries, Erin Grinshteyn and David Hemenway found that the United States accounted for 97% of the firearm deaths among children ages 0 to 4 and 92% of firearm deaths for those ages 5 to 14.9


1 Rebecca M. Cunningham, Maureen A. Walton, and Patrick M. Carter, “The Major Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States,” New England Journal of Medicine 379, no. 25 (2018): 2468-75.

2  Jiaquan Xu et al., “Deaths: Final Data for 2019,” National Vital Statistics Reports 70, no. 8 (2021): 1-87.

3 Lydia Saad, “What Percentage of Americans Own Guns?” Gallup, Nov. 13, 2020; and Judith Palfrey and Sean Palfrey, “Preventing Gun Deaths in Children,” New England Journal of Medicine 368 (2013): 401-3.

4 Cunningham, Walton, and Carter, “The Major Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States.”

5 Jennifer Karas Montez et al., “U.S. State Policies, Politics, and Life Expectancy,” The Milbank Quarterly 98, no. 3 (2020): 668-99.

6 Jonathan Masters, “U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons,” Council on Foreign Relations, updated July 14, 2021.

7 Justin McCarthy, “64% of Americans Want Stricter Laws on Gun Sales,” Gallup, Nov. 4, 2019.

8 Montez et al., “U.S. State Policies, Politics, and Life Expectancy”; and Chris Murphy, The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy (New York: Random House, 2020).

9 Erin Grinshteyn and David Hemenway, “Violent Death Rates in the US Compared to Those of the Other High-Income Countries, 2015,” Preventive Medicine 123 (2019): 20-26.