Gun-related emergency room visits and deaths among Black children soared during the pandemic — and experts and activists say that while the recent data isn’t necessarily surprising, it’s frustrating. There are potential solutions, but they say elected officials and institutions aren’t putting enough resources into preventative measures.
“We had communities that were already on fire, then the violence went to volcanic levels,” said Monique Williams, the executive director of CURE Violence Global, an intervention program working to reduce shootings by treating violence as a disease.
A study released earlier this week found that emergency department visits for firearm injuries among children doubled during the pandemic, as did the number of deaths after arrival to the hospital. Two out of three visits were by Black youths, according to the research published in the journal Pediatrics.
COVID-19 didn’t introduce anything new, said Mighty Fine, director of the Center for Public Health Practice and Professional Development at the American Public Health Association. It only exacerbated already existing crises by removing all the things we know are protective against violence, such as strong social support and economic stability.
Accidental injuries from when firearms are unsafely stored, self-harm during mental health crises, and assault or interpersonal violence all appear to be on the rise, experts say.
These different types of firearm use and injuries require different public health approaches, Fine said, adding community violence is not the same as domestic violence or suicide. Suicide attempts rose almost 80% among Black adolescents from 1991 to 2019, while not changing significantly among other races and ethnicities.
“We have to ensure that we’re talking about the difference in risk and protection,” Fine said. And when protective factors against firearm injury, like improving economic and educational opportunities, increasing access to safe green space, and boosting social support systems are addressed, it will also improve society’s overall health.
The majority of child gun violence victims survive, data suggests. The ripple effects for those families include higher rates of mental health disorders, substance use, and high health care costs.
Isolation and Tragic Consequences
While visits for gun-related injuries during the pandemic were higher than expected for Black youths, they did not substantially increase among white youth compared to pre-pandemic levels. This means the disparities are widening, said Dr. Jennifer Hoffman, the study’s author and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The research also shows that a greater percentage of kids were presented with injuries deemed life-threatening upon arrival during the pandemic.
Experts say that the increase in gun purchases around the same time as increased social isolation and economic stress caused by COVID-19 cascaded into tragic firearm injuries and death. It led to guns replacing car accidents as the leading cause of death among children.
Just as the government, academic institutions, private organizations, and health departments funneled resources — including safety guidelines and instructions — to protect lives from the coronavirus, the same approach should be applied to violence prevention, Williams said. She wonders why we won’t do the same for firearm injuries.
The current approach that centers around punishment overcriminalizes Black communities as opposed to treating violence like a public health issue, she said. She wants to see more of a unified response from lawmakers and community organizations to decrease the number of weapons in the street, particularly automatic and semiautomatic weapons, as well as increase communication about safe storage. The structural violence that had led to the overcriminalization of Black communities also needs to be addressed, she said.
“People want a Band-Aid, and a lot of times the Band-Aid is law enforcement, but that only recycles the outcome of more violence and more death.”
The study looked at visits by children under 18 years old at nine urban hospitals across the country. Of the just over 1,900 emergency room visits by children for firearm injuries during the time frame, half were among those ages 15 to 17.
“If we define the issue from a criminal lens, then the systems at the forefront of addressing the issue are those that address crime. If we define the issue from a public health perspective, the systems at the forefront of addressing it are those that promote health and healing and sustained positive well-being,” Williams said. “We’re dealing with a public health crisis, and we need to treat it as such.”