Study on rise in "gun assault" rates for children shows gun control's failures

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

A Boston University study released this week claims to show “gun assault” rates for children doubled in 2020, and while anti-gunners will no doubt point to the findings as another reason to impose new laws on peaceable citizens, what the research actually shows is that even in cities and states with highly restrictive gun laws already in place violence actually increased.

The study itself doesn’t suggest any particular reason for the increase in violence in 2020, but that’s not stopping some gun control supporters from claiming increased gun sales are to blame.

An estimated 16.6 million U.S. adults purchased a gun in 2020, up from 13.8 million in 2019, according to a National Institutes of Health analysis of the National Firearms Survey.

“With COVID, we’ve seen an increase in gun purchases and more guns in the home,” says Dr. Joel Fein, co-director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Violence Prevention. “So [children] were in places where there were now more guns, and probably more guns on the streets as well.”

There are a couple of big problems with Fein’s analysis, starting with the fact that there are millions of firearms lawfully purchased each and every year. If the increasing number of guns were to blame we’d see violent crime rates steadily rise year after year, but that’s not the case. Violent crime was actually on a 30-year decline until the spike in 2020, which couldn’t have happened if the anti-gunners theory of “more guns, more crime” is correct.

This study also focused on gun assault rates on juveniles in just four cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. Three of the four have incredibly restrictive gun laws, yet saw extraordinary spikes in violence. Take this anecdote, for instance.

In Queens, New York, Northwell Health’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center saw a 350% increase in gunshot patients between 2021 and 2022, according to Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon and director of Northwell Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention.

Did gun sales rise 350% in Queens during the same time period? Not likely, especially given that the NYPD is taking months if not years in many cases to process and approve permits to keep a gun in the home. In fact, the study’s authors say that the largest increase in juvenile gun assaults took place in New York City, which arguably has the most restrictive gun control laws of any of the four cities the study examined.

Even Philadelphia, which has the most relaxed gun laws of the four cities that were a part of the study, tried to clamp down on legal gun purchases and the right to bear arms back in 2020. The Philadelphia police department actually shut down its licensing division in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to wait times of more than a year for folks applying for a concealed carry license until the courts stepped in after Second Amendment groups sued.

It’s absurd to claim that a 40% spike in legal gun sales led to a 350% increase in juveniles being shot, and I’m glad that the study’s authors avoided drawing that inaccurate conclusion.

Study author Jonathan Jay, who studies urban health, says the team looked at the rates to understand whether some children were at higher risk than others. We knew that children of color, even before the pandemic, were more likely than non-Hispanic white children to be shot, and we also knew that child gun victimization seemed to be increasing during the pandemic,” Jay says.

“But no one had looked at how racial disparities in child victimization might have been changing.”

The researchers are still unpacking pandemic-specific factors that may have driven the change, he says. Some of the influences they’re considering include:

Stress associated with job losses, school closures, loss of access to certain kinds of services that closed down,” Jay says. “Also, really visible police violence, especially against people of color. Loss of loved ones and family members to COVID-19 virus.”

If we want to bring these numbers down, we have to pay attention to the right things. I would add the closure of courts to the list of potential reasons for the increased violence, as well as the Defund the Police movement and an exodus of law enforcement from cities like New York and Chicago. We should also be taking a look at juvenile justice policies, given that many of the perpetrators of violence against teens and younger kids are under the age of 18 themselves.

But if gun control was the answer, researchers wouldn’t have found the staggering rise in firearm-related assaults in these deep-blue cities that already make it incredibly difficult to exercise your Second Amendment rights. Gun control activists obviously want to blame this increase on law-abiding gun owners and their right to armed self-defense, but it looks to me like Democratic policies and practices are what’s really behind the increased violence in the cities in question.