This month, a 14-year-old boy died from injuries believed to have been caused when another 14-year-old shot him. While Jeremiah Hernandez’s death is the most recent case of gun violence involving a teenager in St. Joseph, it is certainly not the first and points to a bigger trend of firearms falling into the hands of minors.
John Ham with the Kansas City Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) said the agency traces guns collected by local law enforcement during incidents believed to be crimes. The bureau traces the origin of the gun, how soon it was used in a crime after purchase and the age of the person who used it, among other things.
“We are seeing an increase in working with our law enforcement partners of younger and younger individuals being involved in violent crime,” Hamm said. “That a deep concern for us.”
According to data from the ATF, the number of guns traced to children, teens and adults under 21 in Missouri has increased by nearly 43 percent since 2014.
The federal age to purchase firearms legally ranges from 18 to 21, depending on the type of weapon. According to Ham, there are three ways the ATF sees teens usually getting their hands on firearms.
“What we see primarily when it is teenagers that have those guns, are that the guns came from home, the guns were stolen in residential burglaries, or somebody bought the gun for the person,” Ham said.
The ATF suggests that firearms kept in the home be locked away properly to stay out of the reach of young people who would use them on purpose or accidentally.
“There has to be a level of responsibility by gun owners to not only educate our children, but also to take protective measures to prevent those guns from one being used in a crime or walking out of the house,” Ham said. “Take some measures like using trigger locks, using gun safes, being careful what you post on social media so you're not advertising the fact that you have a lot of guns in your home.”
Ham said guns often are targeted in robberies and by those breaking into vehicles for valuables.
“One of the things that we've seen along these lines more and more, we've seen a significant uptick in the number of guns stolen from vehicles,” Ham said. “It's younger offenders that are stealing those guns. They’re doing it places they know Missouri state laws prohibit you from taking that gun, so outside of a bar outside of a sporting event, and they will target those areas to break into the cars and get the guns.”
ATF data shows that since 2014, the number of lost and stolen firearms has risen from 386 to 436, though this information is not limited to just those taken by teens and children.
Most of the data collected by the ATF excludes information on suicides. Some guns involved in suicides are traced, but not all. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States and the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34. Of the 47,173 suicides in 2017, half involved a firearm.
Regardless of whether the gun is used by a minor to harm themselves or another person or is accidentally set off, Ham said proper storage of weapons can help prevent these tragedies.
“We just we just have to be responsible as gun-owners, as neighbors and as parents to do what we can to play our part in ensuring that those guns don't become available to be used,” he said.