A Black teenager shot in Missouri when he mistakenly rang the doorbell of the wrong home. A young woman fatally shot in New York when she and several friends pulled into the driveway of the incorrect address. Two cheerleaders shot in Texas after one accidentally opened the wrong car door. A child shot in North Carolina after a basketball other neighborhood children were playing with rolled into a man’s yard.
The spate of recent shootings, all involving young people and innocent misunderstandings, have spurred a national outcry and put a spotlight on self-defense laws, which gun violence specialists criticize as ineffective and likely to cause undue harm, particularly to adolescents.
Above all else, young people should be able to live in a world where they can make mistakes without fearing the most drastic of consequences: injury or death by gunfire, advocates and researchers said.
Firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in the United States. In this country, conflict and mistakes are far more likely “to have lethal consequences because we have so many guns so easily available to the general public,” Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, said by e-mail.
“Our children have a right to be safe at school, walking home from school, playing outside, going to pick up their siblings, and driving around their neighborhoods,” she said.
In the days after an 84-year-old man shot 16-year-old Ralph Yarl after he rang the doorbell of his Kansas City home while looking for his two siblings, several other shootings have played out in strikingly similar scenarios.
Andrew Lester, the man who allegedly shot at Yarl through a glass door, hitting him in the head and arm, claimed he was “scared to death” by the teenager, describing him as a “Black male approximately 6 feet tall.” His family said he is only 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. There was no indication any words were exchanged before Lester opened fire.
The shooting of Kinsley White, 6; Kaylin Gillis, 20; Payton Washington, 18; and Heather Roth, 21; all appeared to be unprovoked. In each case, the alleged perpetrator was a man.
Once largely a symbol of privilege and status, gun ownership has become a way for men to prove their masculinity, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“That has increased in this country,” he said.
During the pandemic, gun sales surged and rose disproportionately among those who had never owned a firearm before, Butts said. The extent to which people perceive gun ownership as a means of protecting themselves and their families has also increased sharply in recent years, he said.
That sentiment has coincided with an increase in “Stand Your Ground” laws, which allow people to defend themselves with lethal force if someone is attempting to break into a home or threaten those inside.
According to Butts, “Stand Your Ground” laws are “associated with an increase in homicides” along with a “notable increase in adolescent killings.”
“We know a state that passes ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws is voting to increase the number of people killed by guns, especially young people, especially young people of color,” he said.
Jonathan Jay, a Boston University public health professor who studies gun violence, said it’s clear that such laws “don’t make communities more safe,” and that the recent spate of shootings “are emblematic of young people’s vulnerability to [gun violence].”
Jay noted, however, that the most common youth gun injuries stem from “interpersonal disputes between people who know each other.” Self-defense scenarios are a “very small proportion of youth injuries,” he said.
Megan Ranney, deputy dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University whose research largely focuses around gun violence, called the recent shootings a “horrible confluence of events,” that reflects “a growing wave of firearm injury and firearm deaths across the country.”
“Incidents like this reminds us that there is danger with having a firearm in the house if the person that owns that firearm has not been trained properly, is impulsive, is hate-filled, [or] uses substances,” she said. “We need to pay attention to those risk factors and address them.”
Over the past few years, a culture has taken hold where people have reason to fear that everyday interactions might lead to gunfire.
“We’ve seen an expansion of ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws across the United States. We have seen an expansion of firearm ownership. We’ve also seen an increase in isolation, fear, hatred, all the things that drive people to impulsively pick up a firearm and hurt someone else,” she said. “When we want to look at why firearm injury has become the leading cause of death for American kids, it is related to this aspect of fear.”
As a parent and emergency physician, Ranney said children should be able to “ring the wrong doorbell” or “pull into the wrong driveway,” without fear of being shot.
“I think that these provide us an opportunity to recommit to making sure that our kids can grow up in a safe community. Many of us are scared of going to a parade or a movie theater. We shouldn’t live in fear going to each other’s houses as well,” she said. “If we want to change that culture in the United States, we’ve got to do some really hard work.”