Diego never imagined he’d carry a gun.
Not as a child, when shots were fired outside his Chicago-area home. Not at age 12, when one of his friends was gunned down.
Diego’s mind changed at 14, when he and his friends were getting ready to walk to midnight Mass for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. But instead of hymns, Diego heard gunfire, and then screaming. A gang member shot two people, including one of Diego’s friends, who was hit nine times.
“My friend was bleeding out,” said Diego, who asked KHN not to use his last name to protect his safety and privacy. As his friend lay on the ground, “he was choking on his own blood.”
The attack left Diego’s friend paralyzed from the waist down. And it left Diego, one of a growing number of teens who witness gun violence, traumatized and afraid to go outside without a gun.
Research shows that adolescents exposed to gun violence are twice as likely as others to perpetrate a serious violent crime within two years, perpetuating a cycle that can be hard to interrupt.
Diego asked his friends for help finding a handgun and — in a country supersaturated with firearms — they had no trouble procuring one, which they gave him free.
“I felt safer with the gun,” said Diego, now 21. “I hoped I wouldn’t use it.”
For two years, Diego kept the gun only as a deterrent. When he finally pulled the trigger, it changed his life forever.
The news media focuses heavily on mass shootings and the mental state of the people who commit them. But there is a far larger epidemic of gun violence — particularly among Black, Hispanic, and Native American youth — ensnaring some kids not even old enough to get a driver’s license.
Research shows that chronic exposure to trauma can change the way a child’s brain develops. Trauma also can play a central role in explaining why some young people look to guns for protection and wind up using them against their peers.
The number of children under 18 who killed someone with a firearm jumped from 836 in 2019 to 1,150 in 2020.
In New York City, the number of young people who killed someone with a gun more than doubled, rising from 48 juvenile offenders in 2019 to 124 in 2022, according to data from the city’s police department.
Youth gun violence increased more modestly in other cities; in many places, the number of teen gun homicides rose in 2020 but has since fallen closer to pre-pandemic levels.
Researchers who analyze crime statistics stress that teens are not driving the overall rise in gun violence, which has increased across all ages. In 2020, 7.5% of homicide arrests involved children under 18, a slightly smaller share than in previous years.
Local leaders have struggled with the best way to respond to teen shootings.
A handful of communities — including Pittsburgh; Fulton County, Georgia; and Prince George’s County, Maryland — have debated or implemented youth curfews to curb teen violence. What’s not in dispute: More people ages 1 to 19 die by gun violence than by any other cause.
A Lifetime of Limits
The devastating toll of gun violence shows up in emergency rooms every day.
At the UChicago Medicine trauma center, the number of gunshot wounds in children under 16 has doubled in the past six years, said Dr. Selwyn Rogers, the center’s founding director. The youngest victim was 2. “You hear the mother wail, or the brother say, ‘It’s not true,’” said Rogers, who works with local youth as the hospital’s executive vice president for community health engagement. “You have to be present in that moment, but then walk out the door and deal with it all over again.”
In recent years, the justice system has struggled to balance the need for public safety with compassion for kids, based on research that shows a young person’s brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25. Most young offenders “age out” of criminal or violent behavior around the same time, as they develop more self-control and long-range thinking skills.
Yet teens accused of shootings are often charged as adults, which means they face harsher punishments than kids charged as juveniles, said Josh Rovner, director of youth justice at the Sentencing Project, which advocates for justice system reform.
About 53,000 juveniles in 2019 were charged as adults, which can have serious health repercussions. These teens are more likely to be victimized while incarcerated, Rovner said, and to be arrested again after release.
Young people can spend much of their lives in a poverty-imposed lockdown, never venturing far beyond their neighborhoods, learning little about opportunities that exist in the wider world, Rogers said. Millions of American children — particularly Black, Hispanic, and Native American kids — live in environments plagued by poverty, violence, and drug use.
The covid-19 pandemic amplified all those problems, from unemployment to food and housing insecurity.
Although no one can say with certainty what spurred the surge in shootings in 2020, research has long linked hopelessness and lack of trust in police — which increased after the murder of George Floyd that year — to an increased risk of community violence. Gun sales soared 64% from 2019 to 2020, while many violence prevention programs shut down.
One of the most serious losses children faced during the pandemic was the closure of schools — institutions that might provide the only stabilizing force in their young lives — for a year or more in many places.
“The pandemic just turned up the fire under the pot,” said Elise White, deputy director of research at the nonprofit Center for Justice Innovation, which works with communities and justice systems. “Looking back, it’s easy to underplay now just how uncertain that time [during the pandemic] felt. The more that people feel uncertain, the more they feel there’s no safety around them, the more likely they are to carry weapons.”
Of course, most children who experience hardship never break the law. Multiple studies have found that most gun violence is perpetrated by a relatively small number of people.
The presence of even one supportive adult can protect children from becoming involved with crime, said Dr. Abdullah Pratt, a UChicago Medicine emergency physician who lost his brother to gun violence.
Pratt also lost four friends to gun violence during the pandemic. All four died in his emergency room; one was the son of a hospital nurse.
Although Pratt grew up in a part of Chicago where street gangs were common, he benefited from the support of loving parents and strong role models, such as teachers and football coaches. Pratt was also protected by his older brother, who looked out for him and made sure gangs left the future doctor alone.
“Everything I’ve been able to accomplish,” Pratt said, “is because someone helped me.”
Growing Up in a ‘War Zone’
Diego had no adults at home to help him feel safe.
His parents were often violent. Once, in a drunken rage, Diego’s father grabbed him by the leg and swung him around the room, Diego said, and his mother once threw a toaster at his father.
At age 12, Diego’s efforts to help the family pay overdue bills — by selling marijuana and stealing from unlocked cars and apartments — led his father to throw him out of the house.
At 13, Diego joined a gang made up of neighborhood kids. Gang members — who recounted similar stories about leaving the house to escape abuse — gave him food and a place to stay. “We were like a family,” Diego said. When the kids were hungry, and there was no food at home, “we’d go to a gas station together to steal some breakfast.”
But Diego, who was smaller than most of the others, lived in fear. At 16, Diego weighed only 100 pounds. Bigger boys bullied and beat him up. And his successful hustle — selling stolen merchandise on the street for cash — got the attention of rival gang members, who threatened to rob him.
Children who experience chronic violence can develop a “war zone mentality,” becoming hypervigilant to threats, sometimes sensing danger where it doesn’t exist, said James Garbarino, an emeritus professor of psychology at Cornell University and Loyola University-Chicago. Kids who live with constant fear are more likely to look to firearms or gangs for protection. They can be triggered to take preemptive action — such as firing a gun without thinking — against a perceived threat.
“Their bodies are constantly ready for a fight,” said Gianna Tran, deputy executive director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center in Oakland, California, which works with young people living in poverty, trauma, and neglect.
Unlike mass shooters, who buy guns and ammunition because they’re intent on murder, most teen violence is not premeditated, Garbarino said.
In surveys, most young people who carry guns — including gang members — say they do so out of fear or to deter attacks, rather than perpetrate them. But fear of community violence, both from rivals and the police, can stoke an urban arms race, in which kids feel that only the foolish walk around without a weapon.
“Fundamentally, violence is a contagious disease,” said Dr. Gary Slutkin, founder of Cure Violence Global, which works to prevent community violence.
Although a small number of teens become hardened and remorseless, Pratt said, he sees far more shootings caused by “poor conflict resolution” and teenage impulsivity rather than a desire to kill.
Indeed, firearms and an immature teenage brain are a dangerous mix, Garbarino said. Alcohol and drugs can magnify the risk. When confronted with a potentially life-or-death situation, kids may act without thinking.
When Diego was 16, he was walking a girl to school and they were approached by three boys, including a gang member who, using obscene and threatening language, asked if Diego was also in a gang. Diego said he tried to walk past the boys, one of whom appeared to have a gun.
“I didn’t know how to fire a gun,” Diego said. “I just wanted them to get away.”
In news accounts of the shooting, witnesses said they heard five gunshots. “The only thing I remember is the sound of the shots,” Diego said. “Everything else was going in slow motion.”
Diego had shot two of the boys in the legs. The girl ran one way, and he ran another. Police arrested Diego at home a few hours later. He was tried as an adult, convicted of two counts of attempted homicide, and sentenced to 12 years.
A Second Chance
In the past two decades, the justice system has made major changes in the way it treats children.
Youth arrests for violent crime plummeted 67% from 2006 to 2020, and 40 states have made it harder to charge minors as adults. States also are adopting alternatives to incarceration, such as group homes that allow teens to remain in their communities, while providing treatment to help them change their behavior.
Because Diego was 17 when he was sentenced, he was sent to a juvenile facility, where he received therapy for the first time.
Diego finished high school while behind bars and went on to earn an associate’s degree from a community college. He and other young inmates went on field trips to theaters and the aquarium — places he had never been. The detention center director asked Diego to accompany her to events about juvenile justice reform, where he was invited to tell his story.
Those were eye-opening experiences for Diego, who realized he had seen very little of Chicago, even though he had spent his life there.
“Growing up, the only thing you see is your community,” said Diego, who was released after four years in detention, when the governor commuted his sentence. “You assume that is what the whole world is like.”
KHN data editor Holly K. Hacker and researcher Megan Kalata contributed to this report.