There are at least 555 reasons to ask whether American children are safer from gun violence today than they were three years ago, when the unthinkable happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
That’s how many kids under the age of 12 have died from gunshots — both intentional and accidental — since Adam Lanza stormed into the school in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, and shot dead 20 children and six staff members, according to an NBC News analysis.
That figure, derived from news reports, other publicly available information and data from the Gun Violence Archive, is likely significantly lower than the true number of child gun deaths, as suicides often are not covered by news media and other gun deaths sometimes go unreported. Even so, it works out to a rate of just under one death of a child by firearm every two days in this country.
That’s not an improvement from the rate before Sandy Hook, and one new government dataset suggests that the risk of children dying by gunfire may even have increased slightly since then.
Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mom who created a Facebook page after the Newtown shooting that has grown into the national gun safety group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said she believes that while progress to reduce gun deaths among children has been slow, the Sandy Hook tragedy will one day be seen as a turning point.
“I wouldn’t wake up and spend 12 hours a day working on this if I didn’t think we were winning,” she said. “… I’m just so saddened by the lives we’re going to lose in the meantime.”
As we did two years ago on the first anniversary of the Newtown shooting, NBC News looked at the most recent government data on child gun deaths to see if there has been a noticeable change since the Sandy Hook shooting.
We didn’t find much: The mass shootings that make headlines still account for a tiny portion of the gun deaths that claim the lives of the youngest Americans. It is the steady drumbeat of deaths in ones and twos, in homicides, suicides and accidents, that accounts for the vast majority of cases.
We also talked to 10 experts on gun violence, from both sides of the political divide, to try to answer the question that inevitably arises on milestones such as this: Has anything changed to make children safer from gun violence?
The answers we got varied considerably, depending on who was answering and their perspective on the overall debate over gun rights and gun restrictions. Some key players, most notably the National Rifle Association, widely acknowledged as the most-influential advocate for gun rights, did not respond to requests for comment.
But most of the experts said progress is being made — even as they disagreed about what constitutes progress.
We also found a few areas where common ground has emerged among gun rights advocates and those who believe more restrictions on gun ownership could substantially reduce the number of Americans — including children — who die each year from gunshots. That number totaled 33,599 last year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
What the data show
While gun deaths, along with violent crime in general, have been trending downward for years, the latest data on gun deaths provides no evidence that kids are safer today than they were three years ago.
The broadest measurement of U.S. gun deaths comes from the CDC, which uses death certificates for U.S. residents to determine cause and makes the aggregated data available through its online WONDER database.
The federal agency’s data on child and young teen deaths (14 and under) from guns from 1999 through 2014 show 6,495 deaths, for an overall rate of 0.7 per 100,000 population. That makes up a very small slice — just over 1.2 percent — of the overall number of 497,632 U.S. gun deaths over the same period. (It’s also worth noting that gun violence isn’t close to the leading cause of death. Motor vehicle accidents, for example, killed 628,016 Americans during those years.)
For kids and young teens, homicide was the no. 1 cause of death by gun (59 percent), followed by suicide (22 percent) and unintentional (16 percent).
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, 460 children and young teens died from gunshot wounds, the highest number since 1999. The overall death rate also ticked higher, to 0.8 per 100,000, up from a low of 0.6 per 100,000, most recently attained in 2011.
To look at homicides exclusively,we also crunched the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report data for 34 years, from 1980 through 2013, with assistance from the staff at Investigative Reporters & Editors, to see if we could see any changes in the patterns of gun deaths since we checked in 2013.
We found little had changed. Children under 12 (the FBI uses different default demographic categories than the CDC), who make up 3 percent of all homicide victims, are still far more likely to die from guns held by family members and acquaintances (75.2 percent of firearms incidents) than from guns held by strangers; arguments and other violence at home lead to the taking of a young life more often than random crimes; and guns kill 17 percent of child homicide victims, well below the 40 percent attributable to “personal weapons,” a category that includes beating, strangulation, shaking and biting.
And despite recent headlines about terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, in which the killers were armed with assault-style rifles, most of the guns that kill children are handguns (69 percent), as is true of the general population, and less than 1 percent of child gun homicides occurred in “mass killings,” which the FBI defines as involving four or more victims.
Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University and a leading researcher on firearms laws, mental illness and prevention of gun violence, said many Americans — including some policy makers — fail to realize that outsize tragedies like San Bernardino are not a key component of American gun violence.
“Mass shootings get all the attention, but they are a small part of the overall problem,” he said. “On the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting, about 90 other people died as the result of a shooting.”
Legislative action since Sandy Hook
While many gun safety advocates believed that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary would break the gridlock in Congress over guns, that hasn’t happened.
Congress failed to pass several bills intended to strengthen federal gun laws in the aftermath of Newtown, including a bipartisan bill cosponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to expand background checks for some gun sales. The Associated Press reported Thursday that President Barack Obama is now expected to take executive action to close the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows people to buy weapons at gun shows and online without a background check.
In the absence of congressional action on guns, the battle has largely shifted to the state level.
In a 2014 update to a report on reducing gun violence, originally published just 44 days after the Sandy Hook shooting, Daniel Webster and Jon Vernick of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research said that gun laws were strengthened in 15 states plus the District of Columbia in 2013, immediately after Newtown. Those jurisdictions cover roughly 44 percent of the U.S. population, they said.
The state laws addressed a range of issues, including requiring background checks for all handgun sales, expanding firearm prohibitions for high-risk individuals and banning assault-style weapons or large-capacity ammunition magazines.
Lindsay Nichols, senior attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, said children’s safety specifically is being enhanced through state laws that enable authorities to seize guns from people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence — now on the books in 18 states.
“That’s sort of the untold story,” she said. “In many of these shootings, kids are being shot along with their mothers. Because so many states have now enacted these laws, kids there are certainly safer now than they were.”
Another promising template in the eyes of gun safety groups is a law passed last year in California that allows concerned family members or law enforcement officers to seek a “gun violence restraining order” against someone deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. If a court agrees, authorities could temporarily remove any firearms or ammunition in the subject’s possession and prohibit him or her from buying guns.
Gun rights advocates have had their successes at the state level as well.
John Lott, a longtime gun researcher and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, said that the trend of states making it easier for permit holders to carry concealed weapons has continued since Sandy Hook. In fact, eight states now don’t require permits to do so, he said.
And a dozen states have, to varying degrees, required universities to allow permit-holders to carry concealed weapons on campus, he said, while some also have extended the option to K-12 public schools.
Gun rights advocates consider concealed carry to be a major deterrent to criminals, a concept famously captured by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre shortly after Sandy Hook: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
While many gun researchers dispute the notion that concealed carry laws improve safety, Lott says he has collected accounts of two dozen cases where mass public shootings have been stopped or prevented by concealed weapons permit holders.
“If the person hadn’t been there, there would have been national news coverage,” he said.
Where is the common ground?
While the debate over gun violence is often seen as an intractable standoff between gun safety and gun rights advocates, there are at least a couple areas where the two sides are working toward similar ends, if not exactly in tandem.
The first revolves around efforts to improve the U.S. mental health system, which some experts believe could prevent at least some dangerous mentally ill individuals like Adam Lanza from carrying out mass shootings.
In Congress, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a psychologist by training, has introduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, which he says is an effort to fix “a chaotic patchwork of antiquated programs and ineffective policies across numerous agencies.” The bill, which Murphy often introduces by mentioning mentally ill killers, has broad bipartisan support, with more than 150 members of both parties signed on as cosponsors.
Meanwhile, Lawrence Keane, an executive with the National Sports Shooting Federation (NSSF), the firearms industry's trade association, said his organization has been pressuring states to do a better job submitting data on individuals barred from owning a gun — including for mental health issues — to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), through its FixNICS campaign.
Gun safety advocates say those efforts are largely in step with their goals.
Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and co-author of a 2013 report by the American Psychological Association on predicting and preventing gun violence, said approaches that “do more than just address guns and provide prevention programs, counseling services and threat assessment … that’s a very promising development.”
Deborah Azrael, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, said violence prevention efforts also must be accompanied by public education about guns and suicide, similar to the campaign in decades past that raised awareness of the dangers of drunken driving.
"There has to be a commitment to change social mores around guns and to try and promote the notion that … ‘friends don’t let friends have access to weapons when they’re at risk,'"she said.
Swanson, the Duke psychiatry professor, is generally supportive of efforts to reform the mental health system, but cautions that changes should take into account that most mentally ill people don’t pose a threat of violence.
“There is agreement that a really dangerous person shouldn’t get their hands on a gun … but to talk about it in terms of preventing mass shootings runs the risk of increasing the stigma and social rejection that people with mental illness often feel,” he said.
Teaching safety, taking potshots
Another area where both sides of the gun debate are working toward a common goal is gun safety education.
Groups like Moms Demand Action on Gun Sense, which is aligned with Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown.org campaign to tighten restrictions on gun ownership, have stepped into a role that historically has largely been played by gun rights groups like the NRA and the NSSF to provide such education.
Watts, the founder of the moms group, said her organization has given more than 450 presentations in the past year along to educate parents about “responsible gun storage” to prevent accidental shootings. The Be SMART program also encourages parents to talk to other parents about whether they have guns in the home and how they are stored to head off senseless tragedies.
“It’s a non-partisan program,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a gun owner or a non-owner. It’s about keeping guns safe.”
The NSSF sends a similar responsible storage message through its Project ChildSafe program, which partners with law enforcement agencies to spread safety education messages and distribute free firearm safety kits that include a cable-type gun-locking device. The Project ChildSafe website says it has distributed more than 36 million firearms safety kits to gun owners in all 50 states and five U.S. territories.
The NRA’s Eddie Eagle Gunsafe Program emphasizes parental responsibility, including teaching children about the dangers of guns and talking to other parents about whether they have guns in their home. It also directly addresses kids through an Eddie Eagle Tree House website that includes lessons, music and coloring activities.
Despite their seemingly aligned interests, the hard feelings that surround gun politics doesn’t appear to allow for cooperation or support for the other side’s efforts.
“Eddie Eagle is akin to Joe Camel, a way to get into schools and talk about guns,” said Watts, of Moms Demand Action on Gun Sense, about the NRA’s campaign.
The NRA’s First Things First blog, meanwhile, belittled Watts and her organization for apparently being “more concerned with teaching grown-ups to badger other parents about whether they store guns in their house” than gun safety.
While the NRA did not respond to requests for comment, Keane, the NSSF executive, said that Project ChildSafe is not aimed at indoctrinating young potential gun owners.
“There is no marketing effort, there is no effort to persuade anyone to persuade anyone to purchase a firearm,” he said. “It’s straight-up information.”
And he bemoaned the sniping from the other side, noting that when Project ChildSafe recently received a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, gun safety advocates, including the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, petitioned the agency to withdraw it.
“One would think they would be supportive of us educating on safety and providing gun locks,” he said. “But instead, these groups put politics ahead of safety to try to have the grant withdrawn. That’s unfortunate.”