Child gun injuries up 52% since 2020: What pediatricians must know

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

During the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of pediatric patients came into children’s hospitals with firearm-related injuries and more children were victims of gun-related homicides, according to separate studies that were recently published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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Experts say pediatricians can play a role in the effort to keep kids safe and play a role in stemming firearm-related injuries and deaths.

Firearm injuries among children jumped 52% during the pandemic and remained elevated during 2021, according to a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics. Researchers found that 2,759 children came into children’s hospitals for treatment of firearm-related injuries during the first 21 months of the pandemic, through December 2021. That’s up from the 1,815 children seeking care in the 21 months before the pandemic.

Separate research also published in JAMA Pediatrics found that the rate of homicide for children in the U.S. rose nearly 28% between 2019 and 2020, jumping to a rate of 2.8 homicides per 100,000 children. The increase might be partly driven by firearm-related homicides, which rose 47.7% for children during that time, says the study, which noted that a firearm was the most common type of weapon used in child homicides.   

The AMA declared firearm-related violence a public health crisis in 2016 and advocates to prevent gun violence and to increase gun safety.

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What pediatricians can do

Pediatricians already talk with families about a number of issues that help keep kids safe, car seats, seat belts, smoke alarms. Talking with families about the risk of firearms, along with firearm safety and secure firearm storage, can help play a role in preventing children from accessing guns, too, said Elinore Kaufman, MD. She co-wrote an editorial that ran in the December JAMA Pediatrics.

There’s evidence that 60%–70% of firearm owners are open to talking to their physician or their child’s physician about the topic, said Dr. Kaufman, an assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Trauma, Surgical Critical Care and Emergency Surgery at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s an area where we can make a difference,” Dr. Kaufman said. “We know that more than one-third of American households have firearms in them and we know that the way that firearms are stored makes a difference, but that most families are not securing their firearms in the most secure way. So, there is an opportunity and there’s been a lot of great work done on pediatricians providing information, counseling and in many cases [providing] firearm lock or storage devices to help families with this.”

Ideally, the unloaded, locked firearm is stored and locked away and the ammunition is locked away separately. Just hiding a gun doesn’t work in preventing firearm suicides, and taking that route makes it more likely that kids get their hands on a gun and cause an accidental shooting.

“We have this idea that our children are not going to find their Christmas presents and they do. And we have this idea that our children are not going to get their hands on firearms—and they do,” Dr. Kaufman said. “There’s nowhere you can hide it and there is no amount of telling kids to stay away from something that will work.”

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Learn more with the AMA Ed Hub™ course, “The Physician's Role in Promoting Firearm Safety,” which will help you:

  • Recognize common risk factors that elevate the potential for firearm injury.
  • Identify barriers to communicating with patients about firearm safety.
  • Determine practical approaches to prepare for firearm safety counseling.
  • Effectively communicate how to reduce the risk of firearm injury and death.

Getting involved in advocacy at the local, state or national level is another way pediatricians can help reduce firearms violence, Dr. Kaufman argued.

“As physicians, we have an important role and opportunity in changing and helping to shape how these injuries and deaths are talked about and the way firearms are talked about and how policy and programs are developed and supported,” she said.