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Kids in the Line of Fire

Children, Handguns, and Homicide


Children and teens in the United States are killed with handguns more often than with all other weapons combined. And while children and guns have recently become equated in the public's mind with high-profile school shootings, this is only the most public aspect of the broad-based threat guns pose to youth. According to National School Safety Center information, in the nine school years between 1992 and 2001, an average of 27 children were shot and killed each year in school.1a This is only a small fraction of the hundreds of children murdered each year with handguns. Handguns are a lethal threat to children at all hours, in all places, in every state in our nation.

Children in the United States are far more likely to be shot and killed than their counterparts in other industrial nations. A 1997 study published in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report analyzed all firearm deaths for children aged 14 years old or younger in 26 industrialized nations and found that 86 percent of the deaths occurred in the United States.2 The firearms homicide rate was 16 times higher for American children; the firearms suicide rate 11 times higher; and, the firearms unintentional death rate nine times higher for children living in the United States than for children living in the other 25 industrialized countries. The one factor setting American youth apart is their access to firearms, particularly handguns. The 1996 Police Foundation survey Guns in America found that, while 15.7 percent of Americans currently own a handgun, "57 percent of [these] handguns are usually kept unlocked."3

In the United States, most youth handgun deaths are homicides—with children and teens involved as both victims and offenders. If children are killing, and being killed, by handguns every day in the United States, how are they obtaining the weapon?b Most have easy and ready access in their own homes. A 1998 National Institute of Justice survey of high-school students found that, for students carrying a gun, 52 percent indicated that they had been given or loaned the weapon by a family member or had taken it from their home without their parents' permission.4 And what type of gun were they carrying? When a gun was carried outside the home by a high school-aged youth, it was most likely a semiautomatic handgun (50 percent) or a revolver (30 percent).5

Key Points

Kids in the Line of Fire is a first-time look at children, handguns, and homicide. For this study, the Violence Policy Center analyzed homicide data for the five-year period 1995 through 1999, the most recent information available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR).6 This study analyzes homicides involving child victims killed with handguns. For the purposes of this study, a "child" is defined as being aged one year to 17 years old. Key findings of the study include—

  • An average of two children per day were murdered with handguns in the United States from 1995 to 1999.

  • From 1995 to 1999, more U.S. children were murdered with handguns than all other weapons combined.

  • Nearly a third (32.1 percent) of child handgun homicide victims were murdered by another child (where the ages were known).

  • Black children had the highest rate of handgun homicide victimization—seven times higher than that for white children.

The National Perspective

This study contains both national and state statistics calculated from Supplementary Homicide Report data. This information includes charts ranking the states by handgun homicides with child victims per capita, as well as handgun homicides with child offenders per capita. Additionally, the states are ranked by the percentage of child victim homicides which involved a handgun.

For the 15 states with the highest rate of handgun homicides involving child victims, additional data is broken out by: race of victim; firearm used; relationship of victim to offender; and, the circumstances of the homicide.

State Rankings

For the years 1995 through 1999, the rate of child handgun homicide victims in the United States was 1.20 per 100,000. For that five-year period, Maryland had the highest rate of child handgun homicide victims. Its rate of 2.86 per 100,000 was more than twice the national average. Maryland was followed by Louisiana (2.40 per 100,000) and Illinois (2.24 per 100,000). The remaining states that make up the top 15 can be found in Chart One below. (For a ranking of all states that submitted data to the FBI, please see Appendix One.)

State Ranking by Rate of Child Victims Murdered With a Handgun, 1995-1999


Rate per 100,000
1 Maryland 2.86
2 Louisiana 2.40
3 Illinois 2.24
4 California 2.19
5 Nevada 1.85
6 Arizona 1.69
7 Missouri 1.39
8 Tennessee 1.37
9 Alabama 1.28
10 Georgia 1.27
11 Oklahoma 1.23
12 Mississippi 1.19
13 Pennsylvania 1.17
14 New Mexico 1.16
15 Texas 1.08

Children and Handgun Homicides

For the five-year period 1995 through 1999, 3,971 children aged one to 17 years old were victims of handgun homicide—an average of two children per day. Of these children whose ages were known (810 of 2,525 incidents), nearly one third (32.1 percent) were murdered by another child with a handgun.

During this same period, more children were murdered with handguns than all other weapons combined. From 1995 through 1999, in cases where the weapon could be determined, 54.9 percent of children who were murdered (3,971 of 7,237) were killed with a handgun. Appendix Three offers a breakdown by state of the percentage of child homicides in which a handgun was used. Mississippi ranks first with 67.2 percent of its child homicides involving a handgun.

Race of Child Handgun Homicide Victims

For child handgun homicide victims whose race was identified, 2,214 were black, 1,589 were white, 123 were Asian, and 23 were American Indian. Where the race of the child victim and the offender were known, 88.0 percent of the homicides (2,364 of 2,700) were intra-racial.c Overall, black children had the highest rate of handgun homicide victimization (4.14 per 100,000). This rate was more than seven times higher than that of white victims (0.58 per 100,000) and American Indian victims (0.57 per 100,000), and nearly five times higher than Asian victims (0.87 per 100,000). Information regarding victims of Hispanic ethnicity could not be determined on a national level because of the inadequacy of data collection within the various states and a shortage of reporting to the FBI.d

Victim to Offender Relationship

The largest percentage of children, 48.7 percent, were killed by an acquaintance (1,233 of 2,532 victims). Nearly a third (31.8 percent or 805 victims) were killed by strangers, and 8.9 percent (226 victims) were killed by a friend or romantic partner (boyfriend, girlfriend, or homosexual companion). Nearly 11 percent (268 victims) were killed by a family member with a handgun. Of these familial victims, 56.0 percent (150 victims) were children murdered by their parents. An additional 6.0 percent (16 victims) were children murdered by their stepparents.

Homicide Victims and Weapons

Year after year, firearms—especially handguns—are the most common weapons used in homicides. This is true for child homicides as well. For cases in which the weapon could be identified, 67.5 percent of child victims (4,882 of 7,237) were shot and killed with guns. Of those, 81.3 percent (3,971 victims) were killed with a handgun. For homicides where both the victim and the perpetrator were children, 75.4 percent of incidents involved a firearm (1,012 of 1,342 victims), with 80.0 percent of those involving a handgun (810 victims).

Homicide Victims and Circumstance

The overwhelming majority of homicides among children were not related to any other felony crime. From 1995 to 1999, there were 2,976 incidents in which the circumstance of the handgun homicide of the child victim could be identified. Of these, 82.9 percent (2,466) were not related to the commission of any other felony. Where the number of victims and offender was known, 71.1 percent of incidents involved one victim and one offender (1,956 of 2,976). Again, where known, 21.5 percent of the homicides involved one victim and multiple offenders (592 incidents), 5.4 percent involved multiple victims and one offender (149 incidents), and 2.0 percent involved multiple victims and multiple offenders (54 incidents).


Children and guns have come to be equated in the public's mind with the school shootings that have dominated the news over the past three years. School shootings are the most grotesque manifestation of youth gun death and injury, yet they are in no way representative of the unique toll handguns exact on America's children. All too often child handgun deaths are day-in-and-day-out homicides, frequently involving children both as victims and shooters. The bottom line is that American children are at high risk of getting shot and being killed. Countless individuals, fearful of confronting the hard facts of gun death in America, are quick to blame almost anything for youth gun violence—from films to music to an undefined "wave of evil"—except the unprecedented access we allow our children to firearms. Until we limit the availability of handguns in the hands of both children and adults, this carnage will continue.  

a) This number is for all guns. Handguns were not separately identified.

b) Although children and teenagers cannot buy guns legally, they can possess them. This is a reflection of the patchwork nature of laws regulating firearms possession by juveniles. Federal law prohibits anyone under 21 years old from purchasing a handgun from the holder of a Federal Firearms License (FFL) and prohibits handgun possession by anyone under the age of 18 years old—although the law contains numerous exemptions. The Violent Crime Control Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made it illegal for any person, with some exceptions, to sell or transfer a handgun or handgun ammunition to anyone under 18 years of age. The exceptions include: temporary transfer or possession or use to a juvenile in the course of employment, target practice, hunting, safety instruction, and with prior written consent of the juvenile's parent or guardian who is not prohibited from possessing a firearm; juveniles who are members of the Armed Forces of the United States or the National Guard; a transfer by inheritance of title (but not possession) to a juvenile; and, possession taken in self-defense or for other persons against an intruder into the residence of a juvenile or a residence in which the juvenile is an invited guest. It also made it unlawful for a juvenile, with the same exceptions, to possess a handgun or handgun ammunition.

c) Intra-racial homicides are homicides where the victim and the offender are of the same race.

d) Because of this inadequacy, the Violence Policy Center has issued Hispanics and Firearms Violence, a comprehensive overview of the effects of gun violence on Hispanic communities on both the national and regional levels. This study is available in English and Spanish at

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  All contents © 2001 Violence Policy Center


The Violence Policy Center is a national non-profit educational foundation that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals. The Center examines the role of firearms in America, conducts research on firearms violence, and explores new ways to decrease firearm-related death and injury.