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Why do kids get shot in St. Louis? A new study shows just how little we know

Susannah Lohr
St. Louis Public Radio
A study that evaluated medical records from 156 child victims of firearms found that most did not know who shot them or why.

In St. Louis, the prevalence of gun violence is driving researchers to better understand the causes behind these incidents. But a new study that evaluated three years of medical data from St. Louis Children's Hospital found that the majority of children injured by guns weren’t victims of negligent adults or picking up firearms themselves.

Instead, the analysis, which analyzed 156 cases of children injured by guns between 2014 and 2017, found that just 13% were caused by intentional assaults. Nearly two-thirds of victims were “shot outdoors by an unknown shooter, the motivation of which was unknown.”

Dr. Mary Beth Bernardin, the lead researcher of the study, said the results show just how little data is available on the circumstances of most shootings — and answers are hard to come by when victims often don’t know why they were shot or by whom.

Listen to Dr. Mary Beth Bernardin and Dr. Lindsay Clukies on "St. Louis on the Air"

Bernardin, an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine and pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, said the study’s findings weren’t surprising. When it comes to the causes of shootings, “It’s astounding how little we know.”

The cases in the study involved children 6 to 17, described as “primarily Black adolescent males.” The motivation for the shootings was unknown in 93% of cases, while 36% of these shootings were classified as a “drive-by.”

Dr. Lindsay Clukies, a Washington University emergency medicine physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said the study’s findings echo what she’s seen treating gunshot victims in an emergency department.

“When these children come to our ER, they may be carried in the front door. And we don't ask a lot of questions at that time, we just start resuscitating them to save their lives,” she said. “That's our primary goal in the emergency room. So, oftentimes, we don't know the circumstances right away.”

Clukies also leads BJC Healthcare’s gun safety intervention program, which recently expanded its free gun lock program. She told St. Louis on the Air that she hopes the new research helps humanize the victims of gun violence, especially kids, who often don’t have an explanation for why they were shot.

“They were sitting at home doing their schoolwork, or they were walking to the bus stop. And (the victims) themselves may not know what happened,” she said.

The study, she added, will “help us better serve these kids and better focus on prevention, in order to stop these injuries from happening in the first place.”

The study, “Child firearms injury circumstances and associations with violence intervention program enrollment” was published May 3 in the Journal of Surgical Research.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."