Every 24 hours, an estimated seven young people in the United States lose their lives to gun violence. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, American teenagers are 17 times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in other high-income countries. For black children under age 19, firearms are the leading cause of death. But most of these youths never make the national headlines. Too often, they remain nameless statistics.
British journalist and author Gary Younge, who is editor-at-large for The Guardian and a monthly political columnist for The Nation, set out to explore the stories behind the numbers. The author of several books, including The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the American South, Younge spent more than a decade covering race and politics in the United States as a foreign correspondent.
In Another Day in the Death of America, which was published in 2016, Younge puts a human face on gun violence, uncovering the stories of 10 young people shot dead on the randomly chosen day of Nov. 23, 2013—seven black children, two Hispanic children, and one white child, all boys ages 9 to 19. They were shot in cities (Chicago and Houston) and in small towns (Grove City, Ohio, and Marlette, Mich.). One was killed by a stray bullet as he walked home from school, another by a friend who didn’t realize the gun the two of them bought was loaded. Younge tracked 911 phone calls and incident reports to piece together the stories of these young men’s needless deaths, then interviewed their families, teachers, and coaches to focus on their lives.
Set less than a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the book dives into questions about America’s communities, policies, education, and economics. Younge unpacks what these deaths—which, unlike mass shootings, often go unnoticed—reveal about a society in which gun deaths occur daily. Commentary Associate Kate Stoltzfus recently spoke to the London-based Younge about the causes and misconceptions surrounding gun violence and its youngest victims, as well as what can be done to stop the bullets.
Another Day in the Death of America chronicles the stories of 10 children and teens who lost their lives on Nov. 23, 2013. According to the fatal-injury reports between 1999 and 2015 compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of seven young people die from gun violence every day in the United States. What made you decide to write about gun violence against young people in this country, and why did you choose to do so by focusing on personal stories, rather than research?
No other country has this issue. When I lived in Chicago, and even when I lived in New York, it was a thing that came on after the news. A child was shot. Each individual [death] provoked no moral outcry. So I wanted to find out, who are these kids? They’re falling every day. Seven a day. It’s a stunning statistic. What do they want? What do they want to be?
You write in the book that individual deaths lack the national media attention that a mass shooting would, even though mass shootings represent a small portion of yearly deaths from guns. Do you believe gun violence against young people is a broader problem geographically than the U.S. media would lead people to believe—not just in major cities with a reputation for large numbers of shootings?
Most certainly. On the day that I chose, there was one boy in a small town in North Carolina, one was in a very rural area in Michigan, one was in a suburb in Ohio. Of the other seven, most of them died in places that would not particularly shift the American imagination, but that’s three out of 10. And I think it’s more widespread. I think accidental shootings, or what are sometimes referred to (depending on the incident) as negligence, are more common. People think they know who these kids are—that they are likely to be in gangs, a certain kind of kid. The more reporting I did, the more I found out they didn’t know at all. The assumptions about who the kids and parents are were usually way off.
Now that President Donald Trump, who has been an advocate for the National Rifle Association, is in office, policies surrounding gun control may look very different than they did under President Barack Obama. If you had the ear of the president or U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, what would you want to say about the problems and solutions surrounding protection of our country’s students?
It’s important to move away from the notion that only those who are assumed to have moral purity are the ones that deserve our sympathy."
I would suggest, before they even got to guns, a robust mental-health service that was accessible and affordable. That would save a lot of lives. This is one of the wealthiest countries on earth, these are American citizens, and just as America helped rebuild Europe after World War II, it should, with a similar amount of zeal, invest resources in its cities, which is where we see the most violence. And it should invest in its youth—youth services, clubs. All of those things that give young people a place to go and get them off the street and give them something to do that is not just hanging around will result in fewer deaths. Guns don’t help, but there’s a range of things you can do before you even get into what I call one of those very shallow conversations about the Second Amendment.
In touching on the Sandy Hook shootings, you write in the book that “children comprise a special category: the most vulnerable and the most in need of protection,” but when people discuss these tragedies, the focus often shifts to children’s innocence and moral purity. Say more about why this is a problem.
It takes an issue like Sandy Hook for a large number of people to wake up to what the potential is because suddenly, people think, “That could be my child.” When you start dealing with the “worthy” victim as opposed to all victims, all children, you shift from saying, “This shouldn’t happen to children” to saying, “This shouldn’t happen to children like this, but it should happen to children like that.” If you’re African-American or Latino or, to a lesser extent, if you’re poor, by the time you are 16 or 17 you may have a criminal record for a minor or major offense. There may be a range of ways in which you can be counted out of being in a worthy category, and therefore your death can be dismissed.
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There are places in American cities where kids are expected to be shot, where the fact that they’re shot doesn’t really change how people think about that city or that kid or the way America should be. I think it’s important to move away from the notion that only those who are assumed to have moral purity are the ones that deserve our sympathy or empathy.
You discuss several solutions to alleviating gun violence, including youth and mental-health services, jobs that pay a living wage, a fair criminal-justice system, and better education. You also write in the book that getting rid of guns is not generally seen as the solution, but that child gun deaths are “understood in the same way as car accidents.” How can education make a difference?
One of the reasons why it’s interesting to concentrate on children is because, while it’s possible to talk about personal responsibility, we all know as developed Western societies that there’s a collective responsibility for children. The main place where the state intervenes in terms of children is education. If a child feels that they have promise, that they have chances, that they have hope, they’re much [less] likely to be ensnared in a cycle of pathologies that might lead to their early death. Education is the place where you might start in terms of ensuring that children feel they have value and potential.
Unfortunately, what I saw the whole time I was in the United States was that in the areas most likely to be riddled by gun violence, the schools feel more like prisons—metal detectors, police in the schools in Chicago, and a sense of suspicion that the children who do go to school are not really there to learn, but have to be handled almost like they’re in occupied territory. To me, that’s not the ideal environment in which to tell a young person that they are valued.
What is the responsibility of educators and parents to work against and help children understand gun violence in their own schools and communities?
I think they have to do everything in their power to keep them safe. That involves telling them about what guns can do and what they should do if they see one. But I think that’s only going to go so far unless parents and teachers are working together to create the kind of environment and prospects that make the situations where children might get shot less likely. Fighting for making sure there are the kinds of resources that mean, when you’re 16 and 17, there is somewhere else you might go that’s not hanging out on the street corner if you don’t want to be at home.
I don’t think that young Americans are any more violent than young people anywhere else in the Western world, and I don’t think that American parents are any more negligent than anywhere else in the Western world, and I don’t believe that American teachers are any less caring. So the issue has to be, what is it about what’s going on in America that is making these things possible?
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.