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Racial divide on youth deaths

Third in a series. For every U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan during 11 years of war, at least 13 children were shot and killed in America.

Dawnya Johnson, whose cousin was killed when he was 17, is a member of the Baltimore-based youth advocacy group the Intersection, started by a man held at gunpoint in his apartment. (Courtesy Dawnya Johnson)
Dawnya Johnson, whose cousin was killed when he was 17, is a member of the Baltimore-based youth advocacy group the Intersection, started by a man held at gunpoint in his apartment. (Courtesy Dawnya Johnson)Read more

Third in a series.

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.

And 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 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 victims of homicide, and the majority 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.

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 involves 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 youths who are killed 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 when her already broken life was shattered further. Her mother was addicted to drugs, her father was in prison, and she was tossed from foster home to foster home. She found solace in an older cousin, but that protection was left on a bloody sidewalk. Johnson's cousin was shot six times in the back and 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 would not 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."

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 after he was held at gunpoint in his Maryland apartment and realized how many youths 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.

Maryland had one of the highest percentages of black youth gun deaths from 2002 to 2012. In 11 years, more than 600 black children were shot and killed in their homes or on the street.

The conversation can't be just about guns - it is more about racism and poverty, Cohen 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."

Suicides by gunfire, on the other hand, made up the majority of gun deaths among white youth, accounting for an average of 653 every year.

"A gun doesn't cause the suicidality, but a suicidal person with access to a gun is far more likely to die from an attempt than someone using another method," said Elaine Frank, director of Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM). "It's the combination of accessibility, familiarity, lethality, and really short time frame that's offered by a firearm."

In New Hampshire, where CALM is based, more than 95 percent of all young people killed by guns were white youths and 70 percent of them committed suicide, News21 found.

As a former program director of the injury prevention center at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth, Frank helped develop a state plan on suicide prevention, from which the state developed a suicide prevention council. According to Frank, it's not the gun laws that are going to prevent suicide. It has to be more of a family, community, and cultural change.

"We are not antigun, we aren't saying that gun use is a problem or gun ownership is a problem," Frank said. "What we are opposed to is gun misuse, and we do consider the ill attempt by a child misuse."

With a fairly rural culture, New Hampshire children grow up with guns and are taught gun safety. They are familiar with firearms and most teenagers know where the guns are kept.

"Particularly in young people, the time of risk is often very short," Frank said. "The time from making the decision to make an attempt to actually making an attempt can be very, very short. There's not enough time to say, I don't want to do this."

Accidents involving guns are the third-largest cause of firearm deaths for youths, after murder and suicide. More than 1,100 youths have been killed by a gun that accidentally discharged, the News21 analysis showed.

One, Ryder Rozier, was 3 when he stumbled across a gun in his uncle's bedroom and shot himself in the head in Guthrie, Okla. The gun belonged to an uncle, a state trooper.

Neegnco Xiong was 2 when he was shot by his 4-year-old brother, who found a gun under their father's pillow in Minneapolis. The gun did not have a safety on it. The father was charged with second-degree manslaughter and endangerment of a child.

William Rees was 14 when he shot himself at his grandparent's house in Fremont County, Idaho. He was shooting targets when his pistol went off and pierced his abdomen.

All were killed in 2012.

Teens between 15 and 19 were the most likely to be killed by the unintentional pull of a trigger, accounting for half of such deaths.

Whether homicide, suicide or accident, every four hours a child's life was taken by a bullet during the 11-year period from 2002 to 2012. That's the equivalent of the Sandy Hook massacre every three days.

"No gun law is going to change anything at this point," Rauhouse said. "We make it about the guns, and we're not worried about our kids. People should be focusing on why gun violence exists and trying to prevent it from occurring."

TOMORROW: Laws on the public carrying of weapons.