Editor's note: This story makes references to self-harm and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, you can dial 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7, visit Colorado Crisis Services, or click here for a list of resources in Colorado.
DENVER – As lawmakers across the state continue to debate gun reform in the wake of yet another school shooting in Colorado, a survey published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found one in four Colorado teens said they could quickly get access to a gun within 24 hours.
"This is scary when you realize how much access there is for these teens," said Virginia McCarthy, a doctoral candidate at the Colorado School of Public Health and the lead author of the research letter describing the findings in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.
But timing — not just access — is what matters when talking about teens getting their hands on firearms, McCarthy said, especially if the teen in question is thinking about committing suicide.
While the survey didn't look at answering the question of how teens were accessing those guns, McCarthy said previous research does show that nearly a quarter of completed suicides among youth and adolescents do occur with a firearm that they obtain outside of their homes.
How long does it take for teens thinking about suicide to take action? "For suicidal ideation to action, oftentimes, that time period is under 10 minutes," McCarthy said, adding the research then becomes important because it could lead to other questions such as when, where and how teens are accessing these guns. "If we don't ask those questions, we don't know how to then respond and say, 'In this circumstance, we would advise this method of, of secure storage, or we would advise this (other method to prevent negative outcomes).'"
The findings come as Denverites deal with the latest incident at East High School, where a student shot and injured two deans last week. That student, who was under a school safety agreement which required him to be patted down at the beginning of each day, was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Park County. Authorities have not said how the student got the gun in the first place.
The most recent shooting is only one of three incidents involving students from the school over the past six months.
On Feb. 13, 16-year-old Luis Garcia was admitted to the hospital with a “very poor prognosis” after he was shot while he was inside a parked vehicle near the school. He would die from his injuries about two weeks later. That shooting followed one from September of last year, in which an East High School student and another man were injured after an altercation close to the school.
"Time to access a firearm matters"
Data from the study, which took place in the fall of 2021, comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which randomly sampled 41,000 students in both middle school and high school. The survey included the question, “How long would it take you to get and be ready to fire a loaded gun with- out a parent or other adult’s permission? The gun could be yours or someone else’s and it could be located in your home or car or someone else’s home or car.”
The study found that while nearly a third (32.3%) of students interviewed for the study reported any access to a firearm, 25.3% – or 1 in 4 – could get access in less than a day. Half of those students (12.1%) said they could get access to a loaded gun in less than 10 minutes.
American Indian and Alaska native students reported having the easiest access to a loaded gun at 38.9%, with 17.5% of them saying they could get one in less than 10 minutes. Among all races and ethnicities surveyed, the study found Blacks had the least access to a loaded gun at 25.3%, followed by Latinos at 26.3%. White students were second highest for having the greatest access to a loaded gun (36.9%), with 13.5% of them saying they could get a loaded firearm in less than 10 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, male students reported having easier access to a loaded gun than female students (37.9% to 26.4%, respectively) and said they were able to get access to a loaded gun in less than 10 minutes nearly twice as fast as their female counterparts.
Despite the higher rate of crime in cities compared to rural areas, only 28.6% of Colorado teens who live in the city said they could get access to a loaded gun compared to nearly 40% of their rural peers.
While the study looked at how easy it was for Colorado teens to have access to firearms, it did so in the context of suicide prevention and not in the context of school violence or mass shooting in schools.
Slate of gun reform bills makes its way through the Colorado legislature
The findings come as Colorado lawmakers debate several gun reform bills introduced by Democrats at the same time as East High students and parents demand more be done to end gun violence in their classrooms.
Last week, the Colorado House of Representatives debated two major gun reform bills: One to expand red flag laws in the state and another to allow people to sue gun manufacturers. The former passed the House over the weekend. And on Monday, two other bills — one which would limit all firearm purchases to those 21 or older and one that would put in place a three-day waiting period on firearm purchases — cleared key legislative hurdles.
Per our partners at The Denver Post, the age limit bill passed its formal vote in the House, while the three-day waiting period bill passed a preliminary voice vote that still requires a formal vote to pass, which is sure to happen due to Democratic majority.
Guns are now the number one cause of death among U.S. teens, according to the CDC
Though car crashes had been the top cause of death among children and adolescents since the turn of century, that all changed in 2020, when firearm homicide rates spiked by 33% from 2019 to 2020 – more than double the 13.5% increase seen in the overall population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That means that now, firearms kill more kids and teens than car crashes do, according to the latest data – and while some may argue that this was an effect of the coronavirus pandemic, experts say the reasons are unclear, “and it cannot be assumed that firearm-related mortality will later revert to prepandemic levels.”
Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in 2022 showed the spike in firearm deaths among kids and teens “was primarily driven by an increase in gun assault deaths,” with the U.S. leading other wealthy nations around the world for child firearm deaths.
“In no other similarly large or wealthy country are firearm deaths in the top 4 causes of mortality let alone the number 1 cause of death among children,” researchers noted, adding that when compared with other countries with above median GPD and GPD per capita, “the U.S. accounts for 97% of gun-related child deaths, despite representing 46% of the total population in these similarly and wealthy countries.”
Data from the Gun Violence Archive as of Tuesday showed more than 10,000 people have died in the U.S. from gun violence this year – an average of more than 114 deaths each day. Those numbers include the killings of 347 teens and 59 children.
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