America’s urban youth may not live in war zones, but some face staggering death rates from gun violence that exceed the mortality rates of U.S. troops in recent wars, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers focused on gun-related deaths among young men in four major U.S. cities: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. The death rates for men ages 18 to 29 in two inner-city postal zones were higher than those faced by U.S. military personnel while serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These results are an urgent wake-up call for understanding, appreciating and responding to the risks and attendant traumas faced by this demographic of young men,” said Brandon del Pozo, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, who was one of the researchers.
The study comes as firearms surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. public health agency said 3,597 children died by gunfire in 2021.
Overall, gun violence remained endemic in the United States in 2022, including 648 mass casualty shootings, a near-record, according to Gun Violence Archive, a Washington organization that tracks firearms violence. The first month of 2023 saw more than 50 mass shootings across the nation, defined as an incident in which four or more people were wounded or killed, not including the shooter.
While the JAMA report focused on four of America’s largest cities, gun violence claims eye-popping numbers of lives in many other U.S. metropolises as well.
Young lives taken
In Washington, firearms casualties involving young people are a near-daily occurrence. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department reported a surge of gun violence at the start of 2023, including eight adolescents shot in five separate incidents on a single day in January.
“I’ve seen it all too often,” said Metropolitan Police 7th District Commander John Branch, speaking at a late-night news conference last month after the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old and the wounding of a 14-year-old. “I’m tired of having to come to these shootings. We must learn as a community how to resolve our problems and our issues peacefully and without gun violence.”
Days later, three people, including a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old, were wounded during an exchange of gunfire between two teenagers.
Last year, 105 juveniles were shot in the nation’s capital — 18 fatally — according to Lindsey Appiah, Washington’s deputy mayor for public safety.
In Baltimore, Maryland, a shooting last month left one man dead and three young people injured. After being shot, a young female motorist crashed her car, injuring a 3-year-old boy and a 2-month-old infant.
“I see a lot of folks out here acting like they are tough, but they are really weak,” said Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott during a news conference after the shooting. “Only weak people shoot somebody when they know children are right there.”
Five high school teens were shot in Baltimore last month, one fatally across the street from their school.
In Baltimore and many other U.S. cities, communities are demanding an end to the carnage while political leaders promise change.
“We will make sure that our communities and our children are safe, and they have a right to be safe in their own homes,” said Maryland Governor Wes Moore, a Democrat, addressing a recent anti-gun-violence rally in Annapolis.
Maryland’s legislature is considering several gun control proposals, including mandating that gun owners ensure their weapons cannot be accessed by anyone younger than 18. Another measure would increase the minimum age to legally own a rifle or shotgun in the state from 18 to 21.
Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, a gun rights advocacy group, called the proposals unconstitutional.
“Similar legislation has already been struck down by federal courts in New York and New Jersey,” Pennak said in a statement. Other groups have vowed to fight any new gun control laws via the court system.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has called youth violence an emergency and pledged more resources for law enforcement as well as establishing alternative justice programs for young criminal offenders.
“We need to make sure there are consequences to committing crime,” Bowser told reporters after a meeting with community leaders earlier this week. “Consequences in many cases can be a way to stop a kid from graduating to more violent offenses,” she said.
Bowser recently vetoed legislation by the D.C. Council that revised the criminal code to reduce maximum sentences for some serious crimes. Her veto was overridden.
“We don’t make ourselves safer by necessarily having a very aggressive, tough-on-crime response to everything,” said Brian Schwalb, attorney general for the District of Columbia, in an interview with WJLA-TV.
While there may be no single cure for gun violence afflicting urban youth, communities in Washington and elsewhere are looking to boost engagement with at-risk youngsters.
“We have got to give these kids and young people something meaningful to do,” said Ron Moten, a community activist. “We have to give youth the platforms they need to succeed so they will reject turning to crime.”
Others are simply pleading with young people to stop the gun violence.
“If you need a job, we will get you one. If you need support or mentoring, we’re here for you, but you got to make the change,” said D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George during a recent demonstration to address the rash of shootings. “Killing and shooting in our neighborhoods is unacceptable, especially when our babies are being shot and some killed.”
Last June, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the first major federal legislation limiting firearms in a generation. A major component of the law seeks to deny firearms to those deemed to be a threat to public safety.
Congress passed the gun safety bill with bipartisan backing one month after an 18-year-old gunman wielding a semiautomatic assault weapon killed 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
“We have to find out a mechanism that will make a family member see they need to step in” and try to stop a relative who might pose a threat of gun violence, said Northeastern University criminology professor emeritus Jack McDevitt.
“That person should have their guns taken away, at least temporarily,” he told VOA. “We don’t see that being exercised as much as we think it might be, based on the number of guns out there.”