Guns killing youths at record rate U.S. report shows sharp rise in deaths

March 24, 1993|By Christopher Scanlan | Christopher Scanlan,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The nation recorded a tragic new mileston yesterday: Guns are killing U.S. teen-agers at the highest rate since the government began keeping count 30 years ago.

In 1990, guns killed 4,173 youths age 15 to 19, about 11 each day, according to a new government study. That's up from 2,498 deaths in that age group in 1985, an increase of 67 percent. Only vehicles kill more teens, nearly 6,000 in 1990.

The report says that in 1985, 13.3 youths age 15 to 19 were gunned down per 100,000. That rose to 23.5 in 1990, an increase of 77 percent.

Black males still face the greatest risk, but increasingly the victims are white and younger, the study showed.

"And these are just the deaths. We're not talking about the kids who are shot and don't die," said Lois Fingerhut, an epidemiologist for the National Center for Health Statistics, who compiled the analysis of gun deaths among children, teens and young adults.

In Maryland, a medical researcher called for "more aggressive handgun legislation" last year in announcing the results of a study showing that fewer children in the state were dying in firearms accidents at home, but more were being gunned down on the streets.

That study -- comparing state death statistics for two periods, January 1979 through October 1987 and November 1987 through December 1991 -- was limited to children under 16. It reported that the rate of firearms deaths increased from 14 per year in the first period to 22 per year in the latter period. In all, there were 92 deaths in the latter period. Dr. Bonnie Beaver of the University of Maryland Medical Center, lead author of the study, agreed firearm deaths were "a serious health problem" in Maryland and nationwide. She also noted, "There are more children in the 'lean teen' years, between 9 and 13, who are on the street being caught in the cross-fire."

The researchers noted a decline in fatal firearms accidents from 25 percent of the deaths in the earlier period to 8 percent in the latter years.

But homicide -- which earlier had accounted for less than half of the deaths -- was cited in two-thirds of the firearms deaths in the more recent years.

Some experts estimate that seven times as many children are injured by guns as killed. That makes her report "a very, very conservative picture of what the true problem is," Ms. Fingerhut said.

Behind that problem, injury experts say, is an increasingly violent society in which children carry guns, not only to commit crimes but also to resolve conflicts that once ended with fistfights. According to a recent Justice Department estimate, 100,000 children carry guns to school each day.

Given the climate of violence, the typical reaction when a child is shot -- "That's so senseless" -- may not seem so to a child, said Daniel Webster, an expert on gun injuries at the Johns Hopkins Injury Prevention Center in Baltimore.

"Actually, it does make sense in a situation where a lot of kids are carrying guns and assume other kids are, too. You don't want to be the one who draws for your gun second," he said.

Centered largely in inner-city neighborhoods among black and Hispanic minorities, the rising teen death rate has generally been blamed on gangs and the drug trade. But more affluent neighborhoods and their middle-income families are not immune.

"Violence knows no social, economic, racial or geographic boundaries," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who has proposed legislation to provide mental-health treatment for children exposed to violence.

The rate of black male teens killed by guns is still four times the rate of whites. But in the past two years in which statistics are available, the murder rate for white male teens has shown the greatest increase. The number of deaths rose from 461 in 1988 to 707 in 1990, Ms. Fingerhut said. While some of those involved Hispanics, the rise also was evident among non-Hispanic whites.

Among 10- to 14-year-olds of all races, guns are the second-leading cause of death, with 560 reported. Among those, 258 were murders, 142 were suicides and 146 were unintentional shootings. For black children that age, guns are the leading cause of death.

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