Firearm-related deaths rise for NC teens, child death data shows

Firearm-related deaths rise for NC teens, child death data shows

By Jennifer Fernandez

In North Carolina, 1,360 children died from illness, accidents, homicide or suicide in 2021.

That equates to about 76 classrooms of children, said epidemiologist Kathleen Jones-Vessey with the N.C. Division of Public Health during a briefing Monday afternoon on the new data.

The overall death rate of children ages birth to age 17 — 59.1 per 100,000 resident children — reached its highest level since 2016, according to a separate report to the governor and the General Assembly from the Child Fatality Task Force.

Firearm deaths among children rose to alarming levels from 2019 to 2021, the report’s authors wrote.

“The rise in firearm deaths, along with data showing how easily many high schoolers can access a loaded gun, is quite concerning,” Kella Hatcher, the task force’s executive director, said in an email.

And while the infant mortality rate remained virtually unchanged at 6.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, Jones-Vessey said Monday that that statistic still puts North Carolina among the top 15 percent of U.S. states for deaths of children younger than 1 year.

Usually, infant mortality and other child death data for a given year is released in the fall of the following year, but since the pandemic, the state health department has been plagued with short staffing, which has delayed contracts and projects. 

The Child Fatality Task Force’s 2023 annual report, also released Monday, included 11 recommendations by the group for legislation and funding to address areas of concern, with gun safety legislation at the top of the list. 

The task force, which includes volunteer experts in child health and safety, state agency leaders, community leaders and state legislators, has been working since 1991 to prevent child death and promote child well-being.

A big part of that job is collecting data to determine where to focus their efforts.

“We can’t react to something we don’t understand,” Hatcher said during the briefing.

Firearm deaths 

North Carolina saw an increase of 120.8 percent in firearm-related death rates among youth from 2019 through 2021. From 2011 through 2020, 525 North Carolina children aged 17 and younger died from firearm injuries. 

In 2021 alone, the number of child deaths due to firearms was 121. 

The report’s authors attributed a good portion of that overall increase to the rise in gun-related homicides and suicides among children.  

The report showed children died by firearms in more than 70 percent of suicides and homicides of children in 2021. Of the deaths of children ages 15-17, 83 percent died by firearms in a suicide or homicide.

Homicide rates for the last two years have increased dramatically compared to prior years, according to the report. Nearly all the homicides of children over the age of 4 involved firearms (93 percent).

In its annual report, the Child Fatality Task Force noted that a 2019 study in JAMA Pediatrics “estimated that up to 32% of youth firearm deaths by suicide and unintentional firearm injury could be prevented through safe storage of firearms.”

Several bills dealing with gun issues already have been filed during this session of the General Assembly.

House Bill 72 (Senate Bill 67), the Firearm Safe Storage Awareness Initiative, would create “a two-year statewide firearm safe storage awareness initiative to educate the public about the importance of the safe storage of firearms and to facilitate the distribution of gun locks.”

It passed in the House on Feb. 22; on Monday it was referred to a Senate committee.

The safe storage awareness initiative and gun locks program were then rolled into a separate bill, Senate Bill  41, that would also repeal the requirement to have a permit to buy a pistol  and expand where people with concealed carry permits could have a firearm. Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed the pistol permit repeal in the past, and its inclusion in the package could prompt another veto from him.

That bill passed in the Senate and is sitting in a House committee, where it was referred on Feb. 21.

Suicide numbers rising

Youth suicide rates have been increasing over the past decade, and firearm-related suicides in particular have increased, the report’s authors said.

The 2021 suicide rate for children ages 10 to 17 was the highest in two decades, according to the report. During that timespan, the rate rose from 2.1 deaths per 100,000 children to 5.7.

The U.S. rate also rose, but more slowly, from 2.9 to 5.1.

Recently released results from the latest North Carolina Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that an increasing number of high school students seriously consider suicide.

That survey also shows the percentage of high school students in the state who reported feeling sad or hopeless rose from 28 percent to 43 percent over the past decade.

LGBQ+ students in North Carolina schools were about three times as likely as their heterosexual peers to report seriously considering suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide, the data show. 

Infant mortality

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