Youth gun violence has increased 'dramatically.' Where are teens getting guns?

  • Firearms-related homicide was the top cause of death for those ages 1-24 from 2017 to 2020, CDC records show. That comes after motor vehicle accidents had been the leading cause for 60 years.
  • Many teens get their hands on guns from their own homes, experts and data say. Home and car break-ins and ghost guns are other sources.

DES MOINES, Iowa – Rumors on a bus the morning of March 4 tipped an assistant principal and counselor that a student at a Kansas high school might be armed. Soon, two school officials were looking for Jaylon Elmore.

He was in shop class, his backpack next to him. It was about 10:30 a.m. The varsity football player was taken to the school office, where officials asked to search his backpack, according to an affidavit

Elmore refused, grabbing a homemade pistol from it and firing five shots, the records state. One round hit an assistant principal, and another struck a police officer assigned to the suburban school outside Kansas City. The officer returned fire, critically wounding Elmore, who is now charged with attempted capital murder.

The incident came three days before a drive-by shooting outside a high school in Des Moines, Iowa, that killed one teen and injured two others.

Izaah Knox, with the Urban Dreams social services nonprofit, center, hands out fist bumps to East High School students as they return to class Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Des Moines, Iowa.

This month, in Pittsburgh, two 17-year-old boys were fatally shot and nine others wounded over Easter weekend during a mass shooting at a party of mostly teenagers at an Airbnb. Some 90-100 rounds were fired during the chaos.

The shooting came just as police there and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were planning a news conference to discuss how youth were getting hold of guns in the city.

The incidents are emblematic of a national trend: Across the U.S., more kids are getting their hands on guns and using them in an escalating number of murders, suicides and accidental shootings, experts and data say.

'It's a worsening problem':Guns were leading cause of death among children, teens in 2020, research says

1,352 shootings involving kids already this year

By March 31, there were at least 1,352 incidents where teenagers under 19 were injured or killed by gunfire this year, figures from the Gun Violence Archive show. That total in 2021 was 5,543 incidents. 

The archive's data, which is publicly sourced, also shows that more than 1,500 people 18 years old or younger were killed by gun violence in 2021, up from 1,380 in 2020.

"Gun violence among youth is increasing dramatically – that's just what the data shows," said Mark Bryant, executive director of the nonprofit archive, which claims no affiliation with any advocacy organization. "I'm not able to see how we are going to come down off this. I don't know that it will necessarily continue to trend up, but I'm not seeing anything that would say, 'OK, well, it's cool now.'"

Caution is needed in analyzing the numbers, which have been cyclical over the decades, and in analyzing how the police and politicians respond, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University.

Firearms-related homicide was the top cause of death for those ages 1-24 beginning in 2017 and continuing through 2020, when there were 10,186 gun-related deaths for the age group, according to CDC records published April 16 in The New England Journal of Medicine. Gun homicides overtook motor vehicle accidents, which had been the leading cause for 60 years. Firearm-related deaths have been rising since 2013, and there was a 29.5% increase from 2019 to 2020.

In 2020, gun-involved homicides by kids under 18 were up to 1,704 incidents from 1,225 in 2019 – a 39% year-over-year increase of 479 shootings, according to FBI data compiled by Fox.

The same year, 2020, U.S. homicides involving all age groups were up 30%.

Fox said that big cities, and those with the highest gang activity, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, make up the bulk of teen cases.

The violence is not spread evenly across U.S. cities and towns, skewing the overall picture to suggest youth violence is up everywhere.

“What goes up generally comes back down,” Fox said. "You don't want to minimize the severity of it when someone talks about thousands more people being killed. But let's not also conclude that the trajectory will continue."

Report:Unregistered, untraceable ghost guns leave police investigations in the dark

Adding to the youth homicide toll are teen gun suicides. Suicide attempts by firearms are fatal 90% of the time, one study released in 2019 found. Comparatively, 8.5% of all suicidal acts reviewed by the study resulted in death.

Youth suicides and attempts, particularly among girls, have increased over the past decade. In 2020, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, behind unintentional injury, according to the CDC.

Accidental shootings by those under 18 have also jumped. From the start of 2015 to the end of 2020, there were at least 2,070 unintentional teen shootings, causing 765 deaths, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

Already this year, there have been at least 77 accidental shootings by youth, resulting in 31 deaths, according to data from the group.

Where do young people and teenagers get guns? 

Experts and community members cite many reasons – poverty, instability and trauma as well as a lack of hope, education, opportunities and mental health resources – for the rise in gun violence among young people. But they also seek to figure out where the kids are getting guns. 

Some minors grab legally owned firearms from their homes, stealing from a parent, guardian, relative or friend. Others commit home burglaries and car break-ins, including of police vehicles. Still others get guns through gang connections. 

Federal and state laws generally bar people younger than 18 from purchasing guns.

But experts also say young people are increasingly using homemade firearms typically purchased over the internet, according to the ATF.

Elmore, 18, a senior at Olathe East High School in Kansas, allegedly used a camouflage-decorated 9 mm ghost gun. Exactly where he got it has not been disclosed.

Ghost guns, as they're sold now, are typically assembled from kits and carry no serial numbers, making it nearly impossible for law enforcement to track their origins.

In mid-April, President Joe Biden moved to crack down on ghost guns with new restrictions on the sale and distribution of the guns and parts. The new rules include requirements on manufacturers and sellers of ghost guns to do background checks and stamp the weapons with serial numbers to make them traceable.

From the start of 2016 through the close of 2020, the ATF reported some 24,000 suspected ghost guns were recovered nationally by law enforcement from potential crime scenes. Roughly 325 homicides or attempted homicides were committed using the weapons.

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"A person can make a gun for themselves … and that's perfectly legal," said John E. Ham, ATF's Kansas City-based spokesman, so long as purchasers are not convicted felons, convicted of domestic violence, addicted to narcotics, or in the country illegally.

He stressed that "the caveat on the federal law is that a personally made firearm cannot enter commerce. So it can't be sold. It can't be traded. You can't give it to your buddy."

Ten states and some cities have moved to curtail ghost guns, which can also be made from 3-D printers.

Many teen shooters get guns at home

Ghost guns still make up a very small share of the overall gun marketplace, Bryant said. Most guns that wind up in the hands of young people come from the home, according to gun control advocates and the ATF.

“If you can’t find a gun in under two hours, you aren’t looking hard enough,” Bryant said, noting that many states have lowered restrictions to owning and carrying firearms.

"These kids get these guns from their houses. They break into houses. They break into cars,” Bryant said. In most cases, he said, “They don't have to build a gun.”

Nicole Hockley, co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise, an anti-gun nonprofit founded after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, said 68% of gun-related incidents at schools have involved shooters who took guns from their own homes.

The percentage grows to about 76% when relatives' homes are included.

Research from Carmel Salhi, a Northeastern University professor, shows that 70% of parents believe their children can't get to the guns in their homes.

But in his research, Salhi found that some 30% or more of teens from 13 to 17 years old reported they could gain control of a loaded gun kept in their home in under 5 minutes. Half could gain access in less than an hour.

Law enforcement and gun-control advocates also note the 64% year-over-year surge in gun sales in 2020 – making 2020 a record year for firearms purchases.

The ATF's Ham said to curb the surge in violence, the country needs to look beyond law enforcement. 

"There are a lot of guns in circulation. It takes more than one federal agency or one law enforcement agency" to quell the violence, he said. "It takes community involvement, it takes responsible gun ownership, it takes parents taking steps to make sure that those guns can't walk out of their house."

Follow reporters Andrea Sahouri and Eric Ferkenhoff on Twitter: @andreamsahouri, @EricFerk.

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