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Gun violence is killing more children. The pandemic may be playing a role

Karla Chavez, of the social activist group Chiactivists, puts up a sign at a memorial for 8-year-old Melissa Ortega in Chicago on Jan, 24. Ortega was walking with her mother in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood on Jan. 22 when she was struck by stray bullets after an unknown offender shot multiple times in their direction.
PAUL BEATY
/
AFP via Getty Images
Karla Chavez, of the social activist group Chiactivists, puts up a sign at a memorial for 8-year-old Melissa Ortega in Chicago on Jan, 24. Ortega was walking with her mother in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood on Jan. 22 when she was struck by stray bullets after an unknown offender shot multiple times in their direction.

During the past week, the country has seen a grim death toll of children under the age of 12, killed with guns.

Grayson Matthew Fleming-Gray, 6 months old, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Atlanta on Monday.

That same day, Grace Elliott, 10, was allegedly killed by her father in Somerville, Ohio, in what the local sheriff describes as a murder-suicide that also claimed the life of her older brother.

On Jan. 22, an unnamed 4-year-old in Port St. Lucie, Fla., was allegedly killed by a woman in another murder-suicide.

On that same weekend, Melissa Ortega, 8 years old, was fatally shot. Her death has shaken Chicago.

Melissa was struck in the head by a stray bullet as she was walking hand-in-hand with her mother in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, in the early afternoon. Police say she was caught up in an attack by two males, ages 27 and 16, who were going after a rival gang member.

"She represented the innocence and potential of every child in Chicago," said Police Superintendent David Brown on Wednesday, as he announced the suspects' arrest. "And what happened to Melissa shouldn't happen to anyone, anywhere."

The shootings are happening more often across the U.S. and seem linked to the pandemic

Yet children are dying of gunshots more often, and not just in Chicago. The independent data collection organization Gun Violence Archive counted 1,055 children killed or injured by gunfire in 2021, up from 999 in 2020, and 695 in 2019. So far this year, the tally is at 74.

The increase clearly coincides with the pandemic, but the causes are debatable. One hypothesis: more guns in more homes, as Americans went on a firearms buying spree.

"Correlation is not causation," says Dr. Katie Donnelly, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C. "But it is certainly interesting to see that the more likely your state or area was to have people applying to buy guns ... we saw more kids being injured and dying from firearms."

Donnelly is one of the authors of a study published last summer, which found an association between the number of gun purchase background check requests in an area and the rate of gunshot injuries and deaths among children.

But Donnelly is open to the idea that other factors have contributed. For instance, as children have stayed home more, cases of child abuse are less likely to be detected, and violence less likely to be averted.

Police say the rise in chaotic gunplay among gangs is especially risky for nearby children

"We know that the past two years have been incredibly hard on everybody, but especially on families," Donnelly says. "These kids were not around schools and baby-sitters and soccer coaches and all these people that might see something and say something."

Children have also been out in public more, often around the older teenagers and young men who have driven much of the recent increase in shootings. Police say the rise in chaotic gunplay between rivals, or drive-by shootings, is especially risky for nearby children.

Some experts caution that, as disturbing as it is to see the rise in shootings of children, it's important to keep in mind that the numbers are also going up for other age groups.

"A broader trend is reflected in those numbers," Dr. Garen Wintemute writes in an email. Wintemute is director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis.

"I've seen an estimate that, with suicide added in (also on the increase among young people), we're [at] well about 45,000 deaths in 2021," Wintemute writes. "The question will be whether to emphasize the narrower or the broader increase."

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