I'm deeply disturbed that after a decade of decline, the number of firearm deaths among children and youths has increased for the second year in a row. A report released in September reveals that almost nine children and teens die from gunfire every day -- one child death every two hours and 45 minutes.
The report, based on the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states that 3,184 children and teens died from gunfire in 2006, a 6 percent increase over 2005. Another 17,451 were victims of non-fatal firearms injuries, a 7 percent increase from the previous year. When people from other industrialized democracies learn of America's child gunshot death rates, they're equally troubled.
A major reason for these tragic young deaths is the proliferation of guns. Americans own more than 270 million private firearms -- the equivalent of nine guns for every 10 men, women and children. The United States is one of the few industrialized countries without common-sense controls on gun sales. We regulate toy guns, but not the real ones that snuff out tens of thousands of human lives every year.
Among the young people killed by firearms, 2,225 were homicide victims, 763 committed suicide and 196 died in accidental or undetermined circumstances. The overwhelming majority, nearly 90 percent, were boys. More preschoolers -- 63 -- were killed by firearms than law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty -- 48.
The death toll among black children is growing at an alarming rate. Black males between the ages of 15 and 19 are almost five times as likely as their white peers and more than twice as likely as their Latino peers to be killed by a firearm.
The destructive impact of firearms affects all of us by increasing health care costs, overtaxing social services and decreasing national productivity. Gun violence is so pervasive in some black communities that it constitutes a serious health risk.
It's come to the point where many of the cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in black neighborhoods are not only of veterans returning from war zones, but of children walking up to the corner store. Too many of them speak of the future in terms of "If I grow up" instead of "When I grow up."
Regrettably, in many of the states and at the national level it's an uphill fight to control firearm trafficking. Thirty-two states have no laws requiring firearms sellers at gun shows to first conduct background checks on all buyers. This gun-show loophole has been used to evade laws designed to make it harder for guns to get into the hands of children, criminals, and the mentally unbalanced.
Gun shows are a huge market for vendors with or without federal firearms licenses. Ten years ago, the two teenaged shooters who killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado got part of their arsenal illegally through a gun show.
Congress must pass legislation to close the gun show loophole and strengthen provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act requiring a national instant criminal background check system.
There's strong evidence that background checks can be effective. Between 1994 and 2007, background checks performed by federal firearms licensees resulted in more than 1.6 million illegal buyers being denied guns. It is also imperative that the federal assault weapons ban be reinstituted. According to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the ban reduced the use of assault weapons in crimes by 66 percent between 1995 and 2001.
But the responsibility to keep our children safe cannot rest solely with our political leaders. There are things individuals and families can do: remove guns from homes, mobilize community support to protect children from gun violence, stress nonviolent values and conflict resolution, refuse to buy or use products for children and teens that glamorize violence, and provide children and teens positive alternatives to the streets.
We must hold our legislators accountable to implement these common-sense gun safety measures. The safety of our children and communities is at stake.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund and a working committee member of the Black Community Crusade for Children.