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From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
April 2, 2003

Source of Firearms Used by Students in School-Associated Violent Deaths—United States, 1992-1999

JAMA. 2003;289(13):1626-1627. doi:10.1001/jama.289.13.1626

MMWR. 2003;52:169-172

2 tables omitted

During July 1, 1992–June 30, 1999, a total of 323 school-associated violent death events occurred in the United States, resulting in 358 deaths.1,2 To guide prevention efforts, CDC examined school-associated firearm violent death events committed by students in elementary and secondary schools in the United States and determined the sources of the firearms used in these events. The findings indicate that, among the incidents for which data are available, the majority of the firearms used in these events were obtained from perpetrators' homes or from friends or relatives. The safe storage of firearms is critically important and should be continued. In addition, other strategies that might prevent firearm-related injuries and deaths among students, such as safety and design changes for firearms, should be evaluated.

A school-associated violent death event was defined as a firearm-related homicide or suicide in which the homicide perpetrator or the suicide victim was an elementary or secondary school student and the fatal injury occurred during July 1, 1992–June 30, 1999, either (1) on the campus of a functioning public or private elementary or secondary school in the United States, (2) while the victim was on the way to or from regular sessions at such a school, or (3) while the victim was attending or traveling to or from an official school-sponsored event. Cases of school-associated violent deaths were identified through a systematic search of two computerized newspaper and broadcast media databases (Lexis-Nexis and Dialog). Data on the types of weapons used and their sources were collected through interviews with school and police officials and by reviewing official police reports. A perpetrator was defined as a student who committed either a homicide or suicide. Firearms used by perpetrators who committed a homicide and then killed themselves (i.e., a homicide-suicide event) were included in analyses of firearms used by homicide perpetrators.

During July 1, 1992–June 30, 1999, a total of 218 student perpetrators were involved directly in a school-associated homicide or suicide; 123 (56.4%) of these persons used at least one firearm at the time of the event. Among the student perpetrators who were carrying a firearm at the time of the event, 33 (26.8%) committed suicide, 85 (69.1%) perpetrated a homicide, and five (4.1%) perpetrated a homicide-suicide. The majority of these student perpetrators were male (n = 115 [93.5%]). The median age of student perpetrators was 16 years (range: 10-21 years). Of the 90 homicide perpetrators (homicide and homicide-suicide combined), 14 (15.6%) participated in a multiple-victim homicide event, and 76 (84.4%) participated in a single-victim homicide event. One student committed suicide as part of a multiple-victim suicide event.

Five student perpetrators were carrying two firearms each, resulting in a total of 128 firearms used in these events. Of the 128 firearms, 48 (37.5%) came from the perpetrator's home, and 30 (23.4%) came from a friend or relative of the perpetrator; 26 (76.5%) of the firearms used by a student to commit suicide came from the home of the student, and 48 (51.0%) of the firearms used in homicide events came from the home (n = 22 [23.4%]) or from a friend or relative (n = 26 [27.6%]) of the homicide perpetrator. The source of 29 (22.7%) firearms used by student perpetrators was unknown.

Firearms used by students who committed a school-associated suicide were approximately 11 times more likely (odds ratio [OR] = 11.5; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 4.4-30.1) to come from their home than firearms used by students who committed homicide. Multiple-victim events were more likely to involve firearms from the home than single-victim events (OR = 3.7; 95% CI = 1.2-11.6). Firearms from the home were used more often by female perpetrators than male perpetrators (OR = 5.3; 95% CI = 1.0-27.0) and by non-Hispanic white perpetrators than perpetrators from other racial/ethnic groups (OR = 11.5; 95% CI = 4.6-28.7). Perpetrators from two-parent families were four times more likely to use a firearm obtained from their home than perpetrators from single-parent/caretaker families (OR = 4.0; 95% CI = 1.9-8.6). In addition, firearms used by perpetrators with no criminal history (OR = 3.8; 95% CI = 1.7-8.6) and perpetrators with no previous gang involvement (OR = 18.9; 95% CI = 4.3-83.3) were more likely to come from home than the firearms used by perpetrators who were members of a gang or had a criminal history.

Reported by:

A Reza, MD, Emory Univ School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia. W Modzeleski, MS, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, U.S. Dept of Education. T Feucht, PhD, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dept of Justice. M Anderson, MD, TR Simon, PhD, Div of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; L Barrios, DrPH, Div of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

CDC Editorial Note:

The findings in this report indicate that the firearms used in school-associated homicides and suicides committed by student perpetrators came primarily from perpetrators' homes or from friends or relatives. Students who committed a school-associated suicide or a multiple-victim homicide were more likely to have obtained firearms from their homes than from any other source.

Prevention strategies to reduce firearm homicides and suicides among children and youth typically involve both behavior-oriented and product-oriented approaches. Behavior-oriented approaches (e.g., firearm-safety counseling and child-access prevention laws for parents and firearm-avoidance and firearm-safety programs for children) rarely have been evaluated, and those that have been evaluated have shown limited effectiveness in reducing firearm violence.3

One behavior-oriented approach in reducing firearm violence is firearm-safety counseling by pediatric health-care providers. Pediatric providers have been encouraged to counsel parents on the risks for having firearms in the home and the need to store them securely.4 Typical recommendations include storing firearms unloaded and locked with a trigger lock or in a locked firearm safe or portable locked handgun box. However, counseling alone might not be effective in preventing firearm homicides and suicides among children and youth.5,6 This might be because male parents, who are more likely to own firearms and know how they are stored than female parents, are less likely to bring their children to the pediatrician's office.7,8 Even when they are aware of a firearm in the home, parents with teenaged children are less likely to store firearms safely than parents with younger children, despite the fact that older children are at greater risk for firearm death.9

The results of this study also indicate that it is not enough for parents to eliminate unsupervised access to firearms in their home; approximately 25% of the firearms used in school-associated homicides were obtained from friends or relatives. Parents should consider discussing access to firearms and safe-storage practices with their relatives and the parents of their children's friends.4

The findings in this report are subject to at least four limitations. First, because events were identified from news media reports, any event not reported in the media was excluded. Second, this report includes events associated with schools; other homicide and suicide events involving school-aged perpetrators might have different firearm-acquisition patterns. Third, the results reported for homicide events might not reflect the true distribution of sources because the source of the firearms in approximately 25% of these events is unknown. Finally, among the student perpetrators who obtained their firearms from home or from friends or relatives, how the students gained access to these firearms is unknown.

The safe storage of firearms is critically important and should be continued. In addition to safe storage of firearms, changing the design of firearms might prevent firearm injuries among teenagers and younger children by making firearms more difficult to use unintentionally or intentionally if stolen or obtained illegally.10 Many safety features for firearms (e.g., grip safety mechanisms, loaded chamber indicators, and magazine disconnect devices) are intended to reduce unintentional firearm injuries. Emerging technologies (e.g., personalization of handguns) are designed to prevent unauthorized users of any age from firing a firearm and might reduce access to firearms by adolescents.10 Although changing product design has benefitted child-poisoning prevention efforts and motor-vehicle safety programs, the impact of product-oriented approaches in reducing youth firearm violence is unknown and requires evaluation.10 However, the findings in this report can assist parents, school personnel, and the community at large in developing and implementing prevention strategies to decrease school-associated firearm injuries.

References: 10 available