Gun injuries are leading cause of death in DFW kids

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Fatal gun injuries have been the leading cause of death for kids and teenagers in Tarrant County since 2017.

Fatal gun injuries have been the leading cause of death for kids and teenagers in Tarrant County since 2017.

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Five years ago, fatal gun injuries overtook motor vehicle crashes as the leading killer of children and teenagers in Tarrant County, putting the county several years ahead of a nationwide trend.

Starting in 2017, guns have consistently been the leading cause of death for Tarrant County children and teenagers from age 1 through 19. In 2020, 47 children and teens between the ages of 1 and 19 were killed by a gun, according to death certificate data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Motor vehicle crashes killed 20 young people.

The death data show that Tarrant County is slightly ahead of a troublesome nationwide trend. Nationwide, 2020 was the first year that guns surpassed cars as the leading cause of death for kids and teenagers, said Dr. Patrick Carter, co-director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention.

“It’s mirroring what we’re seeing nationally,” Carter said. “Nationally, the switch happened in 2020. But in some communities, that switch may have happened a little bit earlier.”

It’s a reverse of a longtime trend: For decades, auto crashes have been the leading cause of death in children. And the rise in fatal gun injuries occurred even as the rate of fatal auto crashes was either declining or remaining stagnant.

In the wake of the massacre in Uvalde, in which 19 children and two teachers were fatally attacked in their elementary school, communities throughout the U.S. have been considering the toll of guns on children and teenagers, and whether this latest act of violence will move lawmakers to protect young children.

In Fort Worth, Dr. Daniel Guzman sees the steady rise of children killed by guns in the Cook Children’s emergency room. Every year, the children’s hospital sees dozens of injuries and deaths caused by unintentional shootings from guns left unsecured in homes, Guzman said. Guzman has treated children wounded by guns for years, but his attitude toward the preventable deaths changed several years ago, when one death hit closer to home.

A young boy, probably about 3 or 4 years old, Guzman estimated, was brought into the ER after an accidental gun injury. The boy was about the same age as Guzman’s oldest child, he said.

“For me, as we were going through everything we could to save that child, there were visions of my own kid, my own child on that table,” Guzman said. “I realized that I can’t keep one arm’s length away, it’s no longer possible as a human, as a physician, as a parent.”

The little boy died from his injuries.

Since then, Guzman and Cook Children’s have worked to increase education about safe gun storage in the home. Guzman said he’s shared with parents his own perspective as a gun owner, and what he’s seen in years on the job when children find guns hidden, but not locked away, in their own homes.

“These kinds of things are not freak accidents,” he said.

Safe storage laws would not have prevented the massacre in Uvalde, during which an 18-year-old legally purchased two AR-style rifles shortly after his 18th birthday as well as 375 rounds of 5.56-caliber ammunition, according to law enforcement.

But an established body of research shows that steps like keeping guns in a locked safe and storing ammunition separately can not only help keep children safe from accidental shootings, but can also protect young people from suicide. Texas does not have any laws requiring guns to have a locking device or to be stored in a locked safe, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Texas does have a law that makes someone criminally liable if a child gains access to a firearm and the gun owner acts “with criminal negligence.” Gun safety groups say laws like this are important, but that proactive locking requirements are the gold standard for safety.

laws designed to prevent children from accessing firearms, including laws imposing crimimal liability when a child gains access to a firearm as a result of negligant firearm storage, laws preventing people from providing firearms to minors, and laws requiring safe storage of all firearms in the state. State definitions of “minor” may range from children under 14 to those under 18.

Across Dallas-Fort Worth, guns killed children and teens at a rate of 6.1 deaths per 100,000 young people in 2020, according to CDC data. Motor vehicle crashes killed 4.8 children and teenagers per 100,000.

Complete death data for 2021 has not yet been finalized, but local data shows that the toll of gun violence, and particularly gun homicides, is continuing to grow among teenagers. It’s also possible that motor vehicle deaths could rise again once 2021 data is finalized; early estimates show an increase in traffic deaths last year.

Although the growing trend appears difficult to reverse in light of political reluctance to address guns, Carter pointed to the historic decrease in motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. in the 20th century as evidence that deaths can be reduced when policy makers use multiple approaches. The change started, he said, when the country began to treat car crashes as a public health problem, and used a range of tools to make driving safer, like changing the design of cars and roads themselves, increasing use of seatbelts and car seats, and more education and enforcement of driving under the influence. Between 2000 and 2020, motor vehicle traffic deaths in young people decreased by nearly 40%, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The response to gun deaths is different, he said.

“We haven’t, as a country, coalesced around doing that for firearm deaths,” he said.

But Carter added that it was definitely possible to move the needle on gun deaths with a range of solution from the federal government, states, communities and individuals.

“We do know that there are reasonable policies that do have data behind them,” he said.

This story was originally published June 6, 2022 5:00 AM.

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Ciara McCarthy covers health and wellness as part of the Star-Telegram’s Crossroads Lab. The position is funded with assistance from the Morris Foundation. She came to Fort Worth after three years in Victoria, Texas, where she worked at the Victoria Advocate. Ciara is focused on equipping people and communities with information they need to make decisions about their lives and well-being. Please reach out with your questions about public health or the health care system. Email [email protected] or call or text 817-203-4391.

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