As a mother who lost a son to Chicago’s pervasive gun violence, Maria Pike was not shocked to learn that firearm-related deaths have spiked across the U.S. and Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming the leading cause of death for children and young adults.
“It does not surprise me at all, because Congress has denied us the right to protect our own children, which is unconscionable,” said Pike, 68, whose son Ricky, 24, was shot and killed while parking his car in the city’s Logan Square neighborhood in 2012.
“I was one of those clingy moms who didn’t want her son to move out of the house, but he wanted to be independent and live his own life; and two months later, he was shot multiple times and killed,” Pike said.
Working on the front lines of Chicago’s escalating gun violence, Dr. Marion Henry, professor of surgery at University of Chicago and a pediatric surgeon at UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, said, “Sadly, I’ve seen toddlers injured by guns, and even fatalities of toddlers in the city of Chicago.”
Of the children who survive their injuries, Henry said many still face serious medical complications, including disabilities caused by paralysis, abdominal and gastrointestinal damage, the need for a colostomy, and lifelong mental health struggles.
Firearm-related deaths increased by 28% from 2019 to 2020 — the most recent data available — from 7,947 gun-related deaths in 2019 among children and people age 24 and younger to 10,197 in 2020, according to a report released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In Illinois, firearm deaths spiked from 1,367 deaths in 2019 to 1,745 deaths in 2020, a nearly 28% increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC report cited homicide by firearm as the leading cause of violent injury death for those between the ages of 1 and 24, and suicide by firearm as the third leading cause of such deaths. The report cited 390 firearm homicides and 70 firearm suicides in the state in 2020.
For Pike, part of healing after the loss of her son has included raising awareness by helping organize events that honor victims and their surviving family members.
“We want to provide comfort, and to tell our survivor families to stand strong,” said Pike, who will be participating in Peace Fest: Wear Orange Edition on Saturday as part of National Gun Violence Awareness Day events, which began Friday.
“We know summer is here, and the temperatures are going up, and we need to be very careful and be on high alert,” Pike said. “We’re telling them: Do not to shoot, we come here in peace and to heal together.”
On Thursday, the Chicago Teachers Union held a Vigil Against Violence to reiterate the devastating impact of gun violence on the city’s students and teachers.
“Living past the age of 21 should be a given, and not a goal, for our Black and Brown students,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in a Thursday statement.
Sharkey said the city needs solutions, including support for the GoodKids MadCity Peace Book ordinance, which calls for restorative justice-centered violence prevention.
“We must invest in school communities as anchors of larger neighborhoods, place additional trauma and mental health supports in our school buildings to address this public health crisis, stabilize our neighborhoods, and provide gainful activities to keep our students safe,” Sharkey said.
Pointing to a study that found that residents living within one-eighth of a mile of a shooting incident are twice as likely to experience mental health struggles, Henry said those who are injured or killed are not the only victims of gun violence.
“It’s a horrifying and terrible trend, and it’s something we need to address with a multidisciplinary approach like we did to decrease the number of motor-vehicle deaths,” Henry said.
Motor-vehicle crashes were long the leading cause of death among young people. But in 2017, following decades of safety improvements in automobiles and a growing number of guns in homes across the U.S., gun injuries became the most common cause of death for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics report.
“Children don’t have a voice in this … they can’t vote, and they’re relying on us for our help,” Henry said. “Just like we protect our children by dressing them appropriately for the weather, making sure they’re wearing seat belts and feeding them nutritious foods, we need to have that kind of protection from gun violence.”
As an activist minister in Chicago and the founder of Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere, the Rev. Robin Hood said underserved communities that face the vast majority of the city’s gun violence are in dire need of support.
Building family values with a holistic, multigenerational approach, providing mental health services and increasing employment opportunities, especially jobs that pay a living wage, are key to addressing systemic racism and ending gun violence, Hood said.
“When you’re a mother with two jobs, working at Wal-Mart and Target so you can pay your rent, and you can’t afford a babysitter, she’s just hoping her 15- and 16-year-old kids do right until she gets home from work,” Hood said.
AAP officials are urging lawmakers to address the public health crisis by supporting policies to protect children, families and communities from gun violence.
”Often following mass shootings, like recent shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, there is national outrage about the tragedy and calls for answers,” Dr. Lois Lee, incoming chair of the AAP Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention, said in a statement Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, many more children, teenagers and young people are dying every day in shootings that don’t make the national news or start a national debate,” Lee said. “We as a country need to take a public health approach that mixes safe storage of guns at home to keep them out of the hands of children and teenagers and common-sense legislative approaches that reduce the incidence and impact of community violence.”
The AAP also reported that a third of U.S. homes with children have guns, with nearly 2 million children living in households with unlocked, loaded guns.
Between 2019 and 2020, firearm homicides increased by 35% across the U.S.; and among children and young adults, there was a 38% increase in firearm-related homicides from 2019 to 2020, rising from 4,608 in 2019 to 6,360 in 2020, according to data from the CDC. In addition, CDC officials reported that 85% of all homicides among this age group were committed with a gun.
The AAP, which is asking pediatricians to address firearm safety as part of their routine care for families with children of all ages, also reported firearms as “a highly lethal method of suicide with a mortality rate around 90 percent.”
“Adolescents can be impulsive and, just as adults do, sometimes suffer quietly with depression and anxiety,” AAP officials said. “The presence of a gun in the home of an adolescent increases the risk of suicide even in the absence of a psychiatric diagnosis, but it is especially critical to remove guns from the homes of teens who are depressed.”
For those who do have guns in the home, officials said the risk of injury or death is “greatly reduced when they are stored unloaded and locked, with the ammunition locked in a separate place.”
Families should also consider storing firearms outside the home to decrease access by children and youth, officials said.
And with the end of the school year and start of summer vacation, AAP officials also encourage parents to talk to their children about guns, making sure play dates and other activities are safe by ensuring there are no unsecured firearms in the homes children are visiting.
“Remember to ask other parents, just as you would about food allergies, if there is a gun in the home and how it’s stored,” officials said. “If you don’t like the answer, invite their child over to your home to play.”
The AAP is also in favor of universal background check legislation “to ensure that those who are most likely to perpetrate gun violence cannot purchase guns,” and comprehensive, extreme risk protection laws, which allow family members or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed at risk of harming themselves or others.
Lee with the AAP said despite the challenges, “there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that we can change this trend.”
“Just as years of hard work by legislators, doctors, auto manufactures, activists, engineers, and families lowered auto-related injuries and death, gun injuries can also be reduced,” Lee said.