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Teen Gun Violence is turning into a major issue in Georgia’s Savannah and New York’s Syracuse

From 2014 through this past June, 57 youths aged 12 to 17 in Savannah and 48 in Syracuse were killed or injured in the gun violence

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A makeshift memorial of stuffed animals decorates a South Side street corner, Aug. 21, 2017, in Syracuse, N.Y. The memorial was created for 15-year-old Akil Williams, who was shot earlier this summer. From 2014 through this past June, 48 youths aged 12 to 17 in Syracuse were killed or injured in gun violence
A makeshift memorial of stuffed animals decorates a South Side street corner, Aug. 21, 2017, in Syracuse, N.Y. The memorial was created for 15-year-old Akil Williams, who was shot earlier this summer. From 2014 through this past June, 48 youths aged 12 to 17 in Syracuse were killed or injured in gun violence. VOA

Savannah, Georgia, September 10, 2017: On the surface, Savannah, Georgia, and Syracuse, New York, don’t have much in common beyond their size. Both are smaller cities, with populations hovering around 145,000 people. Yet their streets share a grim reality: Teenagers are being killed or wounded by firearms at rates far higher than in most U.S. cities, according to an Associated Press and USA Today Network analysis of shootings compiled by the non-profit Gun Violence Archive.

From 2014 through this past June, 57 youths aged 12 to 17 in Savannah and 48 in Syracuse were killed or injured in the gun violence. The cities’ rates of teen shootings per capita are more than double those seen in the vast majority of U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 or more.

“It’s getting worse,” said Barbara O’Neal, who started the group Mothers of Murdered Sons in Savannah. “They’re still shooting. And they still don’t care.”

Her son, Alan O’Neal Jr., survived his teenage years, only to be shot dead during a robbery attempt six years ago at age 20.

The unrelenting gun violence in both cities is tearing at the adults who struggle to find answers and the kids who try, often in vain, to avoid mayhem.

Sheryl Sams speaks with a mix of weariness and disbelief about teen shootings in Savannah. She directs a program called Youth Intercept, which dispatches volunteers to the hospital emergency room to offer assistance to young people being treated for gunshot wounds.

Some successes

Sams says Youth Intercept has its share of successes; roughly 75 young people have graduated from the program since 2010. But she estimates only about 1 in 3 victims accept the program’s help.

“We have a kid who’s been shot three times and his mom finally tried to enroll him, but she hasn’t done all the follow-through,” Sams said, adding the mother and son stopped answering phone calls and knocks at their door. “He’s 14 now and he’s been shot three times. To them, it’s a way of life.”

Founded in 1733, Savannah is Georgia’s oldest city, and its downtown area forms the largest National Historic Landmark District in the U.S. An estimated 13 million visitors pumped $2.8 billion into the local economy last year. But beyond the Greek Revival mansions and manicured public squares, nearby neighborhoods struggle with poverty and violence.

In a case that typifies Savannah’s shootings, 17-year-old Wayne Edwards was on his way to a party in August 2014 when he got into an argument with another teen standing outside his car. That teen raised a gun and fired five shots, with one bullet killing Edwards. He wasn’t shot over money or drugs; the evidence pointed to violence sparked by tough talk and bluster.

The 18-year-old shooter was sentenced to life in prison, but the crime still makes no sense to Edwards’ father.

“It’s still hard after three years,” Wayne Blige said of his son’s slaying. “You know what happened, but you still don’t know why.”

Worse in smaller, midsize cities

The Gun Violence Archive compiles information on shootings nationwide from media and police reports. The AP-USA Today Network analysis of those cases found that smaller and midsize cities have higher rates of teen gun violence than major American cities. Chicago, plagued for years by teen violence, is the exception.

Wilmington, Delaware, a city of 72,000, had by far the highest rate of teen gun violence, nearly twice that of Chicago.

Syracuse sits just beyond the vineyard-rich hillsides of the Finger Lakes region of central New York, a tourist destination of spectacular waterfalls, deep gorges, and rolling hills. The city has a grittier past, built not by pressing Riesling grapes but by stamping out parts for automobiles and air conditioners.

Most of those factories have closed. The city is now known mostly for Syracuse University and its basketball team.

The university’s stately halls sit atop a hill that looms over the city’s South Side, a sprawling mix of neighborhoods that are often blemished by boarded-up clapboard homes sitting in overgrown lots. Many of the shootings cataloged by the Gun Violence Archive occurred here.

On one South Side street corner, mourners piled teddy bears where 15-year-old Akil Williams was shot and killed this summer during an argument. The corner is blocks away from where another 15-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2015. A year ago, 18-year-old Tyshawn Lemon was killed as he talked to a girl on her porch nearby.

‘It can happen to anyone’

“When I was growing up … if you were a regular kid and going to school and working, it didn’t happen to you,” said Lateefah Rhines, Tyshawn’s mother. “But now it’s touching everybody’s lives. And I feel like if it can happen to Tyshawn, it can happen to anyone.”

Researchers have linked high poverty rates to gun violence, and some South Side neighborhoods are plagued by both. They are among the poorest areas in a city with a poverty rate of 35 percent, well above the national average.

Despite the reasons for despair, some residents are not ready to give in to the violence.

Over the slap of boxing gloves at the Faith Hope Community Center, Arthur “Bobby” Harrison said some teens who get mixed up with guns are good kids but confused. His gym offers a place where neighborhood youths can shoot hoops, lift weights or spar in a ring next to a wall plastered with pictures of local boxers and role models such as Muhammad Ali and former President Barack Obama.

Harrison, who was serving a sentence in Attica state prison during the infamously deadly uprising in 1971, provides a firm hand for the teens who train here. But the gym also is a sanctuary for teens such as Quishawn Richardson.

“It doesn’t remind you of all the violence that’s going on outside,” said Quishawn, a lanky 15-year-old who dreams of playing basketball up the hill at the university. “It shows you that Syracuse has got some places you can go to without getting hurt.” (VOA)

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Leading Cause of Death of Youth in the U.S: Guns

Black youth also had higher rates of drowning deaths (1.6 times as high) and fire-related deaths (2.3 times as high) than white youth.

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USA, youth
Mourners grieve at a vigil in honor of Edward and Edwin Bryant, twin brothers who at age 17 were shot and killed in Chicago, Illinois, Oct. 31, 2016. VOA

Motor vehicles and firearms kill young Americans more than any other cause, like disease, which has significantly declined, according to a new study.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that less than 2 percent (or 20,360) of all U.S. deaths — including adults — occur among children and adolescents 1 to 19 years old.

“By 2016,” the year for which the most recent data are available, “death among children and adolescents had become a rare event,” study authors Dr. Rebecca M. Cunningham, Maureen A. Walton and Dr. Patrick M. Carter of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor wrote in the Dec. 20 edition.

But in the second largest cause of death among young people — death by firearms — the U.S. leads the world.

“The rate of firearm deaths among children and adolescents was higher in the United States than in all other high-income countries and low-to-middle-income countries with available 2016 data,” the authors wrote, or 36.5 times as high as 12 other “high-income” countries.

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Grace Fisher is a mom who is fearful for her three children. She said something needs to change with regard to gun regulations. She lives in a neighborhood near Thousand Oaks, site of the most recent U.S. mass shooting. VOA

Data for 2017, which are not included in the NEJM article, show a continued increase in firearm deaths for children and adolescents, Cunningham said.

“One in three U.S. homes with youth under 18 years of age has a firearm, with 43 percent of homes reporting that the firearm is kept unlocked and loaded, which increases the risk of firearm injuries,” the authors reported. “In addition to differences in availability between the United States and other countries, there is wide variability across countries in laws relating to the purchase of firearms, access to them and safe storage.”

At the same time, “early diagnosis, vaccinations, antibiotics, and medical and surgical treatment” resulted in “declines in deaths from infectious disease or cancer,” the report said.

And while motor vehicle events were the leading cause of death for young people, that cause has declined 38 percent over the past decade, the authors wrote.

What caused the declines?

“Seat belts and appropriate child safety seats, the production of cars with improved safety standards, better constructed roads, graduated driver licensing programs, and a focus on reducing teen drinking and driving,” the authors wrote, noting that the decline occurred at the same time as increases in the number of U.S. vehicles and annual vehicle-miles traveled.

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Among youth 10 to 19 years of age, injury deaths from motor vehicle crashes, firearms and suffocation were the three leading causes. VOA

But there’s a hitch: Between 2013 and 2016, research showed the decline leveling. And while researchers said they didn’t know for certain, they suspected that distracted driving by teenagers, by other teens in a car or by cellphone use, explained the leveling. The report also wondered about marijuana use and drugged driving leading to “decreased risk perceptions among adolescents.”

Among firearm deaths, 59 percent were homicides, 35 percent were suicides, and 4 percent were unintentional injuries such as accidental discharges of firearms, which aligns with incidents among Americans older than 20.

Death by firearms

Among the unintentional firearm deaths — less than 2 percent of all U.S. firearm deaths — 26 percent occurred among children and adolescents, the report said.

“Malignant neoplasms,” like cancer, were the third-leading cause of death, representing 9 percent of deaths among children and adolescents. That was followed by suffocation (7 percent) because of “bed linens, plastic bags, obstruction of the airway, hanging or strangulation.”

Among the youngest children, 1 to 4 years-old, drowning in swimming pools, rivers and lakes was the most common cause of death, the report said. Death by drowning was more rare in older children, “which potentially reflects widespread swim training among school-aged children.”

Gun control, youth
A man wears an unloaded pistol during a pro gun-rights rally at the state capitol, Saturday, April 14, 2018, in Austin, Texas. Gun rights supporters rallied across the United States to counter a recent wave of student-led protests against gun violence. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) VOA

Among youth 10 to 19 years of age, injury deaths from motor vehicle crashes, firearms and suffocation were the three leading causes. Researchers said these causes reflected “increased risk-taking behavior, differential peer and parental influence, and initiation of substance use.”

Drug overdoses or poisonings rose to the sixth-leading cause of death among children and adolescents in 2016, the report said, attributed to an increase in “opioid overdoses, which account for well over half of all drug overdoses among adolescents.”

Mortality was higher among blacks (38.2 per 100,000) and American Indians or Alaska Natives (28.0 per 100,000) than among whites (24.2 per 100,000) and Asians or Pacific Islanders (15.9 per 100,000), the authors wrote. Deaths related to firearms were the leading cause of death among black youth and occurred 3.7 times the rate of such deaths among white youth.

Drowning deaths

Black youth also had higher rates of drowning deaths (1.6 times as high) and fire-related deaths (2.3 times as high) than white youth. Blacks had death rates from heart disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases such as asthma that were 2.1 and 6.3 times as high, respectively, as the rates among white youth.

Also Read: Video: Orange Rallies in US Honor Victims of Gun Violence

“Such disparities probably reflect underlying socioeconomic issues, including poverty, environmental exposures and differential access to health care services,” the researchers wrote.

“Progress toward further reducing deaths among children and adolescents will require a shift in public perceptions so that injury deaths are viewed not as ‘accidents,’ but rather as social ecologic phenomena that are amenable to prevention.” the authors concluded. (VOA)