"Your children are not safe anywhere at any time." These terrifying words by the serial snipers terrorizing the suburbs and communities around our nation's capital horrified much of our nation.
For all of us who live here, the threat of the anonymous and unseen sniper shooting innocent victims as they went about their everyday business in familiar places was very real. Fear had suddenly very literally hit home. For me and many others, the most terrifying threats of all were the ones against children. Who was not outraged when a child on his way to school was shot? Montgomery County, Maryland Chief of Police Charles Mooses tears reflected our own frustration and fears. When the snipers left their chilling words in a note to police, a community already paralyzed by anxiety took its fears to another level.
Many parents chose to keep their children home behind closed doors. Television cameras captured our empty parks and playgrounds. Children who attended school were surrounded by police cars in place of crossing guards and monitored by surveillance helicopters hovering overhead. Once inside, students were locked into classrooms during the day and not allowed to leave the buildings even for recess. Our children themselves became the first prisoners in "lockdown" to be punished during this domestic reign of terror.
For many, the sniper's attacks were so horrifying because they were so random, so unexpected, and so unlike the peaceful and safe atmosphere most of the people who live in affluent communities are usually able to take for granted. When the two sniper suspects were brought into custody, we all breathed a sigh of relief and began returning to our normal routines, thankful that the sudden and frightening epidemic of gun violence had ended.
But there is a huge number of Americans for whom gun violence is an everyday threat in their neighborhoods, schools, and homes. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics released the latest statistics on child gun deaths. There was some good news. Gun deaths among children and teens declined by more than 10 percent between 1999 and 2000 and reached their lowest point since 1984. The very bad news is that we lose eight children to gun violence every day in Americaone young life every three hours. These deaths do not come with a note and a warning"Your children are not safe anywhere at any time. Perhaps if they did, it would galvanize our national community to respond with a similar sense of urgency.
More children and teens die from gunfire in our country than from cancer, pneumonia, influenza, and HIV/AIDS combined. In 2000, there were 3,012 children and teens who died from firearm homicide, suicide, or accidental death: the quiet equivalent of September 11th. Over half of them1,776 children and teenswere murdered with guns. Over a thousand children and teens committed suicide with guns in 2000, and 193 died from accidental shootings. Guns kill children of all races and ages in this country: 1,762 child gun victims were White, 1,149 were Black, and 568 were Hispanic; 433 were under 15, while 129 were under 10, and 59 were under 5. It is safer to be an on-duty law enforcement officer than to be a child under 10.
The fact is, no child today is safe anywhere because gun violence occurs every day in every type of community: poor, middle income, affluent, White, Black, Latino, rural, urban and suburban. Between 1979 and 2000, nearly 90,000 children and youths lost their lives to gun violence. The majority (61 percent) were White although gun violence disproportionately victimizes Black and Brown children. And like shooting sprees and other gun violence, child gun deaths are a uniquely tragic American problem. The rate of firearms deaths among children under age 15 is almost 12 times higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized countries combined. American children are 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun, 11 times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die in a firearm accident than children in these other countries. Why is this so? Why do we continue to tolerate it? What is it going to take for us to say no to the killing of children by gunfire?
In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., we spent three long weeks dealing with fear that we and our children could be targets at any time. For many children, this threat never goes away and is a daily reality in the war zones of their homes, schools and communities. Three thousand gun deaths and thousands more gun injuries are a human catastrophe. When is our homeland security department going to protect them?
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
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