Five years ago, fatal gunshot wounds overtook motor vehicle accidents as the leading killer of children and teenagers in Tarrant County, putting the county several years ahead of a national trend.
As of 2017, guns have consistently been the leading cause of death for children and adolescents ages 1 to 19 in Tarrant County. In 2020, 47 children and adolescents ages 1 to 19 were killed by a gun, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s death certificate. 20 young people died in a car accident.
Death data shows Tarrant County is slightly ahead of a problematic statewide trend. Nationwide, 2020 was the first year that guns overtook cars as the leading cause of death for children and young people, said Dr. Patrick Carter, co-director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.
“It reflects what we’re seeing nationally,” Carter said. “Nationally, the change took place in 2020. But in some communities, that change may have come a little earlier.”
It’s the reversal of a long-standing trend: car accidents have been the leading cause of death among children for decades. And the rise in fatal gunshot wounds has occurred while the number of fatal car accidents has either declined or stagnated.
In the wake of the Uvalde massacre in which 19 children and two teachers were fatally assaulted at their elementary school, communities across the US have pondered how many guns are being leveled at children and young people and whether this latest act of violence will move lawmakers to protect young children .
In Fort Worth, Dr. Daniel Guzman the steady increase in children being killed by guns in the Cook Children’s ER. Each year, Children’s Hospital sees dozens of injuries and deaths caused by accidental firings from guns left unsecured in homes, Guzman said. Guzman has been treating children wounded by gunfire for years, but his attitude toward preventable deaths changed a few years ago when a death arrived closer to where he lives.
A young boy, probably around 3 or 4 years old, Guzman estimated, was taken to the emergency room after being accidentally gunshot wounded. The boy is about the same age as Guzman’s eldest child, he said.
“As we were trying to save this child, I had visions of my own child, my own child on this table,” Guzman said. “I realized that I can’t keep an arm’s length away, that’s no longer possible as a person, as a doctor, as a parent.”
The little boy died from his injuries.
Since then, Guzman and Cook Children’s have worked to improve education about keeping guns safe at home. Guzman said he shared with parents his own perspective as a gun owner and what he’s seen over the years at work when kids find guns hidden but not locked away in their own homes.
“Things like this are not uncommon accidents,” he said.
Safe-storage laws would not have prevented the Uvalde massacre, in which law enforcement said an 18-year-old had legally purchased two AR-style rifles and 375 rounds of 5.56-caliber ammunition shortly after his 18th birthday.
But a well-established research group shows that measures like keeping guns in a locked safe and keeping ammunition separate can not only help protect children from accidental gunshots, but can also protect young people from suicide. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are no laws in Texas that require guns to have a locking device or be kept in a locked safe.
Across Dallas-Fort Worth, guns killed children and young people at a rate of 6.1 deaths per 100,000 young people in 2020, according to CDC data. Car accidents killed 4.8 children and young people per 100,000.
Full death data for 2021 is not yet available, but local data shows that gun violence and particularly gun homicides among teenagers continue to rise. It’s also possible that motor vehicle deaths could start to pick up again once the 2021 data is finalized; Early estimates show an increase in traffic deaths over the past year.
Although the increasing trend seems difficult to reverse given political reluctance to guns, Carter pointed to the historic decline in motor vehicle deaths in the United States during the 20th century as evidence that fatalities can be reduced if political Decision makers take several approaches. The change began, he said, when the country began treating car accidents as a public health problem and deployed a range of tools to make driving safer, such as changing the design of cars and the roads themselves, increasing the use of seat belts and car seats, and more education and enforcement of driving under the influence. Between 2000 and 2020, motor vehicle deaths among young people fell by nearly 40%, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The response to gun deaths varies, he said.
“We didn’t come together as a country to do that for gun deaths,” he said.
But Carter added that with a variety of federal, state, local and individual solutions, it is definitely possible to tackle gun deaths.
“We know there are sensible policies backed by data,” he said.