By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
The horror of 20 children being shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School shocked the nation and the world.
But Colorado researchers — who initially set out to study playground accidents — found that gun violence is harming children every day. Very few people know about these gun injuries because federal law has prohibited funding for research on gun accidents and fatalities.
The Colorado researchers combed through every single injury over an eight-year period at Denver’s two primary trauma hospitals that serve children, Denver Health and Children’s Hospital Colorado. They expected to find information about playground injuries and were surprised to learn that violence was harming a significant number of children every year.
On average, at least 14 children between the ages of 4 and 17 were suffering gun injuries every year between 2000 and 2008 in the Denver area alone. That doesn’t include the number of children who died of gunshot wounds or those who didn’t seek emergency care for their injuries.
“We realized that there was this horrible pattern of violence in the injuries,” said Dr. Angela Sauaia, a trauma researcher and associate professor of public health and surgery at the Colorado School of Public Health. “A large percent were due to knives, pieces of glass and guns.”
Sauaia and her three research partners found that over one-third of the trauma cases related to violence stemmed from gun injuries. The number of gun-related trauma cases has stayed relatively steady, and Sauaia said she expected that the number would have remained consistent from 2008 to the present.
The findings were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. (To read a JAMA Q & A with Sauaia, click here.)
“With New Town and the Aurora tragedy happening, we decided it was important for people to know that kids are being injured by guns on a routine basis,” Sauaia said.
The researchers also found that a stunning 14 percent of the gun injuries were self-inflicted. Either the children accidentally shot themselves or some were trying to commit suicide. Self-inflicted gun wounds were more common in children ages 10 to 17.
“We don’t know if they were intentional or by accident,” Sauaia said. “Regardless of intention, these kids managed to get ahold of an unlocked, loaded gun. Nobody would think that children should have unsupervised access to unlocked, loaded guns.
“So, regardless of where you stand, that’s good common ground for all of us to work on,” Sauaia said.
The researchers conducted their work without any federal funding. Sauaia said there are major gaps in knowledge about gun injuries and deaths because funding has been so difficult to attain. She said the number of children and adults who die from guns is small compared to those who suffer injuries. So there’s a great need for new research on gun injuries.
Regardless of how much researchers know about the causes of gun injuries, the consequences are clear and ominous, Sauaia said.
“If your child is hurt and the wound is due to a firearm, they are 10 times more likely to die than any other injury,” she said. “Most victims of trauma don’t die, but they suffer consequences for the rest of their lives.
“People tend to only pay attention to gun safety issues after these mass killings but this is happening all the time to our children and it’s totally preventable,” Sauaia said. “Are we as a society willing to accept that 14 or more children shot each year is an acceptable number?”
Conducting the research with Sauaia were Joshua Miller, a former student at the Colorado School of Public Health; Dr. David Partrick, a pediatric trauma surgeon at Children’s Hospital Colorado; and Dr. Ernest “Gene” Moore, head of surgery at Denver Health.