Last Friday night, four people were shot a block from my house in Denver. A 15-year-old girl was critically injured, and 21-year-old Christian Martinez died on the spot. The suspect is 19 years old, and he's not an anomaly.
This event and countless others inevitably spark debate on American gun laws. But we consistently forget to factor in the group that's most affected when forming our views: America's youth.
Consider this: 37.5 percent of all homicide offenders from 1980-2008 were between ages 18-24. That's under 10 percent of the nation committing more than a third of our murders. By the same token, a third of American gun death victims are under 24. In 2011, the second most frequent cause of death for 15-34 year olds was homicide, and 83 percent of them died by gunfire. According to the Center for American Progress, someone under the age of 25 is killed by guns in the U.S. every 70 minutes -- nearly twice the number of those killed by drugs and alcohol combined.
A predictor of gun murder among young Americans? Having a gun, of course.
One study published last year found that, among serious juvenile offenders in Philadelphia and Phoenix, those charged with murder were no more likely to have young mothers, to be in a gang or to have been suspended from school. They were, however, more likely to have had access to a gun. Though most states forbid minorities or those under 21 to buy or possess a handgun, studies show that one in five American children live in homes with firearms, and almost 80 percent of these children know their location(s).
Easy access to guns has another unwanted side effect for America's youth: accidents.
The Centers for Disease Control indicates that between 2007-2011, an average of 62 children under age 14 were accidentally shot and killed each year (other analyses reveal that federal data "substantially undercount" these deaths).
American children are 16 times more likely to be killed in unintentional shootings than the same age group in other high-income countries. "I've never even heard of a child getting accidentally shot over here," Irish personal injury lawyer John Dowling said. "It just doesn't happen." Only in America are more preschoolers shot dead each year than are police officers in line of duty.
The primary perpetrators of accidental child shootings are children. According to a 2013 New York Times analysis, a quarter of young accident victims shot themselves. The majority were unintentionally shot by another, usually someone their own age such as an older brother.
Access triggers accidents: In one study, nearly 65 percent of unintended youth gun deaths took place in a home or vehicle that belonged to the victim's family. Another 19 percent occurred in a relative's or friend's home. In a study published by the Journal of Accident Analysis and Prevention, accidental shootings were three times more likely to occur if there was a gun in the house.
But more fatal than homicides and accidental shootings combined for young Americans is suicide by firearm.
In 2013, suicide was the second leading cause of death in Americans ages 15-34 (homicide and suicide battle for that spot). Forty-five percent of these suicides were completed by discharge of firearm.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 72 percent of adolescents who committed suicide had a firearm in their home. And a report in Annals of Internal Medicine, which reviewed research published between 1988 and 2005, found that youth who had access to guns were three times more likely to commit suicide than those who didn't.
Still think they would have taken their own lives anyway? Countless examples (summarized here in an excellent article by the New York Times) reveal that the easier it is to take your own life, the more likely you are to do it.
When tragedies occur around the U.S. and outside our doorsteps, two reactions dominate: "I want a gun to protect myself from this madness" or, my own initial reaction to Friday's tragedy, "we need seize and melt every gun in America". Both are hyperbolic expressions of fear that do little to advance our policies or increase our safety.
But one thing is certain: More guns will not prevent more death by guns.
Though 63 percent of Americans polled by Gallup believe guns make their homes safer, research shows that living in a house with a gun actually increases a person's odds of early death. A recent analysis indicated that easy access to firearms doubled the risk of homicide and tripled the risk for suicide among all ages.
There are fewer than 3000 "defensive gun uses" and only 100 burglary-homicides each year across America. Meanwhile, 13,188 Americans under age 24 died by guns in 2011 alone -- more than all 2011 homicides in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran put together. In total, by the end of 2015, the Center for American Progress estimates that guns will have killed more Americans under 25 than cars.
The American Academy of Pediatrics writes, "The absence of guns from children's homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents."
Yet many others reason, perhaps rightly, that "the cat's out of the bag"; it's useless to ban guns because there are already so many out there.
But the polarization of gun ownership is a distraction.
If we can't agree on the second amendment, we can certainly agree on evidence-backed regulations: more thorough, universal background checks, prohibiting a person convicted of a serious crime as a juvenile from having a gun for 10 years, requiring a mandatory 2-year prison sentence for a person convicted of knowingly selling a gun to someone who can't legally have one, and safe storage requirements in homes. And, according to a recent exhaustive poll, we do.
The next step is action.
If for nothing else, for the children.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.