Guns Not Leading Cause of Child Deaths
“Do it for the children,” my California friend used to say in a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation.
Her point was that any time a politician mentioned children, they were trying to sneak something past you. She was right.
The meme “guns are the leading cause of death for children” is popular but wrong, and it should be uttered in a thick Austrian accent.
A key problem with the English language is that one word can have many definitions. Add political opportunism, and there can be hundreds.
Common dictionaries define “child” as “a person between birth and puberty.” This is why we tend to speak of “children” and “teenagers” and “adults” as distinctly different groups. And anyone who has raised a child from birth to beyond age 14 will attest that their darling little angels turn into disgusting little devils once hormones take command of their brains and bodies.
That said, some dictionaries also say that “child” means “a person between birth and puberty or full growth,” the latter being rather vague.
If we look at the traditional definition of “child,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) mortality database tells us that firearms are tied with heart disease and parasitic infections for child deaths. How many kids do you personally know who have died from any of these?
In criminology, “child” typically means people under age 14. Indeed, many laws exist that prevent police from taking statements from children under 14 years of age unless accompanied by a guardian, because of the assumed inability of such youngsters to intelligently navigate interrogation (though, truth be told, many adults can’t cope with the same).
The reasons for this are based in the social changes young people go through starting at puberty. They become more independent, less obedient, more social outside of the home, and take ever greater risks.
Hence, for the terrible meme “guns are the leading cause of death for children” we have to ask, “What definition of children do you use?”
That is when it starts to fall apart, because in some neighborhoods social systems have fallen apart for young men.
Teenage gang members
The National Gang Center (NGC), a function of the federal government, tells us that in recent years, between 35 and 41% of street gang members are under age 18. They also note that street gang recruitment begins at age 14, when the social effects of puberty take control (as well as early onset testosterone poisoning).
Ponder that: criminology separates teens from traditional children due to changing behaviors and capacities for risk. For guns, those demarcations should be enforced as well.
The CDC table above showed that for ages 0–14, guns were not a major risk. Hence, the inaccurate claim that “guns are the leading cause of death for children” includes teens, which means it has to include teenage street gang members.
Given what the NGC says about entry into street gangs (age 14), the percentages of gang members that are teens (minimum 35%), and that American street gangs are stupendously violent, you would expect to see gun homicides rise steeply in the teen years.
And it does. Factor in that street gangs are largely metropolitan and that gun play between black street gangs is the worst of gang violence, and the rest of this chart makes even more sense.
Let’s get granular
As you would anticipate, the rate of firearm death is low for actual “children” and starts to climb into the teen years.
The CDC confirms this.
Though some firearm deaths creep in slightly before puberty (an equal mix of homicides and suicides; though truth be told, some of those “suicides” aren’t), we see that rate shift sharply upwards at age 14.
Which fits the NGC’s demographic profile of street gang members.
Though combined, all the other causes of death outpace firearms, that includes every other way of dying, from automobile collisions to bungie jumping accidents.
For some races, some degrees or urbanization, and especially some combinations of those, firearms do top the list. But not for all combinations and not for children.
Looking at just teens and their races, we see that blacks have very high rates of firearm deaths. But this masks two additional points, namely urbanization (you are more likely to be murdered in city street gang violence while in town) and the CDC’s combining or both Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites into one group. That last point masks the fact that people in lower economic groups (e.g., urban Hispanics) are more likely to be gang members).
When we map firearm homicides to the same 14–19-year-olds and to their urbanization, and split out Hispanics, we see the clearest of pictures about “guns are the leading cause of death for children.” In short, to be a teenage male in a city (which conforms to the NGC’s demographics for street gang members) sharply increases the odds of catching bullets.
Let’s not be childish
When activists say “guns are the leading cause of death for children,” they mask some serious problems, and by doing so keep us from fixing those problems.