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BU Study: Racial Disparities in Child Exposure to Gun Violence Worsened during COVID
Childhood firearm violence exposure increased for almost all non-White racial groups during the pandemic. The highest rates of gun violence exposure occurred among children in the South, but racial disparities in gun violence exposure were greatest in the Northeast and Midwest.
More than 17,000 children are shot in the United States each year, making gun violence the leading cause of death among children and teens. Recent research shows that firearm violence rose sharply during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but data is limited on how this spike affected childhood exposure to, and racial disparities in, firearm violence across the nation.
A new study led by School of Public Health researchers has found that non-White children in the US experienced greater exposure to neighborhood firearm violence than White children before the pandemic, and that these racial disparities in gun violence exposure increased for every non-White racial group except Native Americans during COVID.
Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the study found that Black children bore the brunt of pre-pandemic gun violence exposure, at 4.44 times the rate of White children. The findings revealed that Black children also experienced the highest increase in firearm violence exposure during the pandemic.
The study is the first to quantify racial disparities in childhood exposure to gun violence with data from every US neighborhood, and one of few studies to report the rise in gun violence during COVID.
“These findings are striking, as they display not only that large-scale racial disparities are present, but also that these disparities grew during the pandemic,” says study lead author Rachel Martin, an MPH student in SPH’s BS/MPH dual-degree program and project manager for the RISE Lab. “This is particularly important as firearm violence exposure contributes to a plethora of adverse physical and mental health outcomes among youth.”
For the study, researchers from SPH’s Research on Innovations for Safety and Equity (RISE) Lab at SPH, Teachers College at Columbia University, and the University of Michigan School of Public Health, utilized US census data and firearm violence data from the Gun Violence Archive to examine childhood exposure to violence for children ages 5 to 17, from March 2015 through March 2021. They obtained data for children in eight racial categories: Black, American Indian and Alaska Native (Native American), Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, White, ≥2 races, and “Some Other Race,” which represented other race categories that respondents manually entered into census surveys.
The findings showed that, after Black children, children who identified as “Some Other Race” carried the next highest burden of gun violence exposure prior to the pandemic, followed by Hispanic children. Asian/Pacific Islander children experienced the lowest levels of disparities. All of these groups also experienced a higher proportional increase during the first year of COVID.
The researchers also observed substantial regional variation in US childhood exposure to gun violence, where children in the South experienced the highest rates of exposure overall, but children in the Northeast and Midwest experienced the starkest racial disparities in gun violence exposure, both pre-pandemic and during COVID.
“These differences in exposure throughout various parts of the country really point to the impact of regional differences in residential segregation,” Martin says.
“It’s telling that the regions with the highest racial segregation show the biggest disparities in child exposure to gun violence, even when overall gun violence rates are lower,” says study senior author Jonathan Jay, assistant professor of community health sciences and principal investigator of the RISE Lab. “Boston is emblematic of this pattern. Gun violence per capita is relatively low compared to other US cities, but it’s highly concentrated in the neighborhoods where children of color live. We’ve got to tackle not only segregation itself, but reverse the disinvestment and unequal distribution of resources that come along with it.
The researchers say the findings underscore the need to monitor racial inequities in child gun violence exposure, as well as invest in policies and programs that promote gun violence prevention and reduce structural inequities.
“Our response must combine upstream prevention with trauma response that helps mitigate long-term impact at the individual and community levels, while also addressing the role of structural racism—including segregation and disinvestment—in shaping these disparities from early life,” says Jay.
The study was co-authored by Faizah Shareef, Kristal Xie, and Kalice Allen of the RISE Lab at SPH; Sonali Rajan, associate professor of health education at Teachers College; and Marc Zimmerman, Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor of Public Health and director of the Prevention Research Collaborative at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
About Boston University School of Public Health
Founded in 1976, Boston University School of Public Health is one of the top five ranked private schools of public health in the world. It offers master's- and doctoral-level education in public health. The faculty in six departments conduct policy-changing public health research around the world, with the mission of improving the health of populations—especially the disadvantaged, underserved, and vulnerable—locally and globally.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Racial Disparities in Child Exposure to Firearm Violence Before and During COVID-19
Article Publication Date