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Gun assaults on children more than doubled during COVID's height, study finds

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Boston University researchers studying four major U.S. cities found that gun assaults on children more than doubled during the height of COVID with a sharp disparity along racial lines. WHYY's Sammy Caiola reports.

SAMMY CAIOLA, BYLINE: The shooting rate for Black children was 100 times higher than the white child's rate for the same period. Those figures come from police and coroner data from Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Study author Jonathan Jay says the team expected to see disparities widen.

JONATHAN JAY: And what we found was that they had, in fact, increased dramatically.

CAIOLA: The rates at which Black children were shot about doubled nationally, while the rates for Latino children increased slightly, and the rates for white children stayed roughly the same. The data only included deaths and injuries from assaults - not accidents or self harm. And it didn't include injuries from Chicago, so Jay says these numbers might actually be an undercount. He says researchers are still unpacking these trends. They're looking at factors that drive gun violence. That might have been worse in neighborhoods where children of color live.

JAY: Stress associated with job losses, school closures, loss of access to certain kinds of services that closed down during the pandemic, also really visible police violence, especially against people of color.

CAIOLA: Philadelphia's child gun assault rate outpaced the other three cities in the report. Gun violence is concentrated in certain parts of Philadelphia, including North Philly, where Makih Hemphill grew up. He's 16 and Black.

MAKIH HEMPHILL: I still have the thought in the back of my head to, like, protect myself because of how this world is currently. I don't want anything bad to happen to me, and my mother doesn't want anything bad to happen to me either, so...

CAIOLA: He says the pandemic was rough for teens.

HEMPHILL: Everything was confusing. There were so many people in the house. It was loud, but you had to learn at the same time.

CAIOLA: Being stuck at home might have driven some kids to violence.

HEMPHILL: Maybe their home is not their safe place. And something probably, like, is going on at home. And they didn't have that escape because they couldn't leave home. So maybe they had a break or something like that.

CAIOLA: Gun purchases rose in the first year of the pandemic. That makes Kaliek Hayes's job even more important. His nonprofit, the Childhoodslost Foundation, focuses on keeping kids from turning to guns. He says the more guns, the more violence.

KALIEK HAYES: With access create opportunity - it just happens to be negative opportunity. And they're using them.

CAIOLA: Hayes tries to keep them focused on schoolwork and extracurriculars like theater and chess.

HAYES: In communities where it's poverty driven - and again, they're missing all the other elements of just being productive. And then we ask why? I mean, it's a perfect recipe.

CAIOLA: Public health experts say mentorship like Hayes provides, plus better education and trauma support, are all part of the solution. Dr. Joel Fein at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says without that kind of investment, health systems will keep seeing higher numbers of child gunshot patients. Fein wants the new study to be a wake-up call for cities everywhere to focus on prevention.

JOEL FEIN: I hope that they understand that the crisis is not just solved at the very end of the story where you're just preventing that one firearm injury but that it is work done with kids and families before, way before, they get to that point where they're in danger.

CAIOLA: As of 2020, firearms are the leading cause of death for American children nationally, surpassing car crashes for the first time ever, according to the CDC. For NPR News, I'm Sammy Caiola in Philadelphia.

FADEL: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WHYY and KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sammy Caiola