People stand in a parking lot in Kansas City holding signs to raise awareness about gun violence.
Volunteers from KC Mothers in Charge canvass in Kansas City to raise awareness about gun violence. (Courtesy photo)

With gun injuries now the leading cause of death among children and teenagers in the United States, parents and communities are seeking new strategies to keep children safe. That’s especially the case in places like Kansas City, where children too often become innocent victims of a larger gun violence epidemic.

Young people are now more likely to be injured in a gun assault than an accidental shooting or a suicide attempt, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And newly released research based on data from St. Louis Children’s Hospital found that most of the child and teenage victims admitted to the emergency room were struck by bullets that had nothing to do with them, fired by people the young patients didn’t know.

“They don’t know why they were shot,” said Dr. Mary Bernardin, an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, who directed the research. 

“This felt like such an extremely common thing that these children would say — that they were just out, doing their thing at the park, walking home from school, and that shots ring out and they don’t know where they were coming from.” 

Bernardin’s study, which analyzed data from 2014 to 2017, found that 72% of the children who came into the emergency room with gunshot wounds were shot outdoors by a stranger. In 93% of the cases, the motive for the shooting was unknown. Three ZIP codes within St. Louis city accounted for 40% of the shootings. 

Intentional assaults, such as those resulting from disputes or attempted robberies, accounted for fewer than 15% of the pediatric gunshot admissions that Bernardin studied. 

“It’s just so unfortunate that they are being brought up in neighborhoods that are so unsafe, and they don’t have any place that they can be outside and play that they’re not at risk for being shot,” Bernardin said. “And it’s really no fault of their own at all. It’s just trying to be outside. And that’s something all children need to be able to do.”

Bernardin’s study did not include hospital data from Kansas City, but a safety expert at Children’s Mercy Hospital said medical workers there see the same trends. 

“It’s kind of consistent in the urban core across the nation,” said Laura Kemerling, program manager for Children’s Mercy’s Center for Childhood Safety. “I think we’re in a day and age where we can no longer delineate intent.” 

Gunshot victims relive the trauma

A recent study from Pew Research Center found that the number of children and teens killed by gunfire in America increased by nearly half during the pandemic. 

The dangers are especially acute in Black neighborhoods. In 2021, 46% of all gun deaths among children and teens involved Black victims, according to the Pew study. Only 14% of the nation’s under-18 population in the U.S. was Black.

“Not all people are affected by this public health problem the same way that Black American children are disproportionately affected,” said Alison Athey, a behavioral and social scientist at Rand Corp., a policy think tank.

The uptick in injuries during the pandemic ties in with the lack of safe places for children in urban areas to gather, she said.

“I think one potential takeaway is that when people don’t have safe places for their children to go, when they don’t have safe places to be, they’re much more vulnerable, both to being victims but also to acting out in those spots.” 

As of June 16, Kansas City has reported 82 homicides in 2023. Seven of the victims were younger than 18. In all of 2022, there were 169 confirmed homicide cases across the city, with 10 of the victims younger than 18. Many more children and teenagers were wounded by gunfire or traumatized by witnessing people around them being shot.

Long-term attention to the trauma experienced by young victims should be as important as addressing gun violence from a larger, communitywide perspective, Athey said. 

“When we see post-traumatic stress in children, often the way that they remember the incident is by reliving it, by acting it out, because they don’t have the development, really, to experience those memories differently,” she said. 

“We need to support a comprehensive approach to figure out not only how to stop that, but how to help those who lose classmates and friends. I think that the prevention approach as well as the response really needs to go hand in hand or we’re going to keep seeing these problems.” 

Rosilyn Temple, founder and executive director of the Kansas City chapter of Mothers in Charge, an organization that seeks to reduce violence and support families affected by homicides, said her organization is intensifying its focus on the trauma that children and adults experience from being around gun violence.

“People don’t finish the process of healing when they’ve been shot,” she said. “And how they feel after they’re shot — you’ll hear gunshots all the time. We’re living in a war zone in Kansas City, so you hear it all the time.” 

Temple speaks from experience, having lost a son to homicide in 2011. “What happened to me basically destroyed me, so I had to do something in my community,” she said. KC Mothers in Charge started a trauma-informed peer support group in 2021 for those who survived gunshot wounds. 

Within Kansas City’s Black community, speaking about emotions or seeking help can be seen as a weakness, Temple said. She wants to try and change that stigma.  

“There’s a lot of generational things, things that we have covered up, or ways we have learned behaviors,” she said. “[Growing up] we didn’t see counselors, we weren’t taught to. We were scared to go seek counseling and ways to help people because they said we were crazy.” 

The difficult search for solutions 

Temple views gun violence as a community problem requiring community solutions. “People … just turn their head and say, ‘It’s not my business.’” she said. “It is your business.”

Bernardin, the University of Missouri professor, said her recent findings about the random origins of childhood gunshot wounds also signal an urgent need for community solutions beyond safety locks and safe storage of firearms.

“If most of these kids were shot outdoors, and are victims of their neighborhood, then what we really need are programs that are focused on the communities to decrease crime,” she said. “We need investment in the communities to help people get out of these cycles of violence, poverty and crime.”

But she added, “That is such an oversimplification. And it’s so complicated because there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.” 

It’s also complicated because, in states like Missouri, politicians are unable to reach a consensus on gun safety measures, even ones that have been effective elsewhere.

Kristin Bowen, volunteer coordinator for the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action,  said communities can find creative ways to focus on protecting children from guns. She pointed to a 2022 resolution passed by the Liberty school board that promotes and educates district families on safe storage measures. 

“We know that securing firearms will protect both kids and adults from unintentional shootings, from gun suicides, and also young people accessing firearms who shouldn’t have access,” she said.

But any gun safety measure in Missouri has to be crafted to avoid running afoul of Missouri laws that have leaned increasingly in the direction of promoting gun access, Bowen said.

“We’re trying to do this advocacy in ways that sort of sidestepped the question around restrictions of local communities,” she said.

Missouri Rep. Peter Merideth, a Democrat from St. Louis whose district includes the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, where a student, a teacher and a gunman died in a shooting last year, spent this year’s legislative session trying unsuccessfully to get the Republican-controlled legislature to consider various pieces of gun safety legislation, including a red-flag provision and permission for cities to pass ordinances that would prohibit those under 18 from carrying firearms.

“Laws are part of the solution,” Merideth said. “Of course, they’re not the entire solution. There is without a doubt a cultural shift that we need, where we don’t worship guns.” 

He added, “It seems like we’re teaching kids by example … or by rhetoric, that the solution to keep you safe is having a gun and using it.” 

Merideth said he still sees room for moving gun safety measures forward in the legislature if voters continue to be vocal about what is needed in their communities and hold their lawmakers accountable.

“I don’t think it will happen until the day comes that voters actually make somebody pay consequences for their radical support of guns,” he said. 

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...