This project was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
For every U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan during 11 years of war, at least 13 children were shot and killed in America.
More than 450 kids didn’t make it to kindergarten.
Another 2,700 or more were killed by a firearm before they could sit behind the wheel of a car.
Every day, on average, seven children were shot dead.
A News21 investigation of child and youth deaths in America between 2002 and 2012 found that at least 28,000 children and teens 19-years-old and younger were killed with guns. Teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 made up over two-thirds of all youth gun deaths in America.
The News21 findings are compiled in the most complete database to date from records obtained from 49 state health departments and FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports.
“It’s an unacceptable number and it should be regardless of where you stand on gun-owning ideology,” said Colette Martin, a member of Parents Against Gun Violence. “The numbers are that high and we are as a country ignoring them.”
Most of those killed by firearms, 62 percent, were murdered and the majority of victims were black children and teens. Suicides resulted in 25 percent of the firearm deaths of young people: The majority of them were white. More than 1,100 children and teens were killed by a gun that accidentally discharged.
An Epidemic of Violence
Zeke Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, a Baltimore youth advocacy group, said the dialogue on guns only seems to pierce the national consciousness when it’s a mass shooting in an affluent white suburban community, such as the one where he grew up.
The American gun debate, he said, rarely takes into account the number of black youth who are murdered every day.
“We as a country tolerate violence when it is in low-income black communities,” Cohen said. “Because we’ve come to accept that the acceptable face of gun deaths is black, we allow it to continue to happen.”
Dawnya Johnson was 11 years old when her already broken life was shattered further. Her mom was addicted to drugs, her dad was in prison, and she was tossed from foster home to foster home. She found solace in her older cousin, but that protection was left on a bloody sidewalk. Johnson’s cousin was shot six times in the back and he bled to death before the ambulance got to the scene. He was 17.
“He had taken on the role of two people who were unable to take care of me at that time,” Johnson said. “This beam of support had been ripped from under me.”
Her cousin had lost his job and started selling drugs to make ends meet. When Johnson’s foster families wouldn’t give her food or buy her clothes, he always found a way to get her what she needed.
“My cousin made sure that I had the basic stuff and that I had Nikes and looked fresh every day,” Johnson said. “No kid would ever know if we were homeless or I was hungry walking in the door.”
A young black girl growing up on her own in inner-city Baltimore, in a state with one of the highest percentage of black youth gun deaths in the nation, she said she doesn’t live in fear.
“I’ve become desensitized to fear,” Johnson said. “Once something happens so many times and it repeats itself it becomes something that you don’t fear.”
Jennifer Rauhouse, executive director of Peer Solutions, an Arizona-based organization that looks to prevent violence from occurring, said gun violence was a manifestation of other issues, such as child abuse, sexual abuse and bullying.
“If we don’t get to the heart of the question of gun violence, we’re doomed,” said Rauhouse, who founded the organization.
It’s not enough to react after a shooting, she said. Steps have to be taken to prevent that sort of violence from occurring in the first place.
Eli Chevalier, a high school senior and member of Peer Solutions, said the group works to prevent violence by teaching middle- and high-school students that respect and equality are the norm, not violence.
“People won’t turn to drugs and violence if they have respect and equality in their lives and in their relationships,” Chevalier said.
Cohen started The Intersection, a Baltimore youth advocacy group, after he was held at gunpoint in his Maryland apartment and realized how many kids live with gun violence in their neighborhoods. Johnson, an active member and student leader of The Intersection, lives with it every day.
“For my students, it’s having hope and feeling like they are playing a constructive role in bettering their communities,” Cohen said. “One of the challenges when you’re dealing with communities is that the victims of the gun violence often have a feeling of disenfranchisement.”
All of the students at The Intersection have been affected by gun violence. They’ve lost family or friends, been shot at or caught in shootouts.
“Our students are attempting to change that narrative and dismantle the amount of violence in our city,” Cohen said.
The state of Maryland had one of the highest percentages of black youth gun deaths from 2002 to 2012. In 11 years, more than 600 black kids were shot and killed in their homes or on the street.
“Kids are getting killed, but the reality is America has played such a role in shaping these communities, there is a responsibility that we have to solve this problem,” Cohen said.
The conversation can’t be just about guns, it’s more about racism and poverty, he said.
“There is too much access. It’s easier for a child to buy a firearm in Baltimore than it is to buy a pack of cigarettes,” Cohen said. “The less guns that are available, the less gun deaths we are going to have, but that doesn’t solve the problem.”
“This is not a Maryland problem, this is an American problem.”