At the age of 15, a young girl from Chicago named Hadiya Pendleton had the honor of performing on behalf of her high school at the second presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. She was a talented majorette dancer and a sophomore at King College Prep. Just over a week later, while she waited in the park with friends after taking her final exams, she was shot and killed. Hadiya’s death came to serve as a microcosm of the widespread and devastating effects of gun violence on youth across the country. It garnered the attention of the former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as Team ROC, the philanthropic organization of rapper Jay-Z, and the actions of her loved ones have left a continuing legacy in the form of Wear Orange. Orange was the color Pendleton’s loved ones wore to commemorate her life and has since become the color of the gun violence prevention movement. Organizations, groups, and individuals throughout the movement celebrate Wear Orange Weekend during the first weekend in June to honor Hadiya’s birthday on June 2nd.
Although communities and activists across the country have built momentum to prevent youth gun violence, children are still dying by firearms at an exorbitant rate. According to CDC data analyzed by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, firearms were the leading cause of death for children, teens, and young adults ages 1–24. When discussing youth gun violence, mass shootings are a common image that dominates public perceptions, but these events account for only around 1% of all firearm deaths. In reality, 60% of child and teen gun deaths that occurred in 2019 were homicides. We also must look at these data from an intersectional lens — Black and Hispanic youth are more likely to die by firearm, with young Black males ages 15–24 being 23 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than their white counterparts and young Hispanic males are over 4 times more likely to be murdered with a gun.
Guns also compound the tragedy of the intersecting youth suicide epidemic. Suicide causes more deaths across all age groups than any other form of firearm injury, while also contributing significantly to youth gun violence. In 2019, nearly 3,000 American adolescents aged 10–24 lost their lives to firearm suicide, contributing to 34% of overall child and teen firearms deaths.
Gun violence has lasting effects on children not only in the form of physical harm but also mental trauma. Witnessing or losing a loved one to gun violence can lead to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses that youth can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Why is it that our children and young people are being harmed by guns at such astounding rates — and what can we do to stop it?
Risk factors for youth gun violence are numerous and interwoven. Structural and societal factors including income inequality, under-funded public housing and schools, easy and unsupervised access to firearms, lack of opportunity, and perceptions of hopelessness compound individual and interpersonal factors. Just as we have experienced with other public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic inequities can correlate with worse health outcomes — in this case, a higher likelihood of firearm injury.
National and state lawmakers, public policy experts, and community leaders need to address youth gun violence with equitable, evidence-based intervention. This is possible if only our elected officials champion legislation that targets the root causes of gun violence and invest in community programs that are already doing gun violence prevention work. These programmatic and policy solutions must target areas that are disproportionately impacted by youth gun violence. Better funding to public schools, free meal distribution programs, mental health services with trauma-informed care, investment in community-based recreational activities, or interpersonal bonding opportunities, like neighborhood gardens, are all powerful ways to create opportunity-filled and life-promoting communities. Communities and governments should support great organizations focused on empowering youth such as GoodKidsMadCity based in Chicago and Yeah Philly in Philadelphia that are already doing this work through grant allocation or volunteer efforts.
There are additional effective methods to prevent youth gun violence, like violence interruption and restorative justice models. Violence interruption programs, like the Cure Violence model, relies on trusted messengers to physically intervene and de-escalate violent situations before any physical injury occurs. Restorative justice focuses on rebalancing relationships that have been violated by a crime through engaging both the victim and perpetrator. The restorative action is victim-centered, with an emphasis on perpetrator accountability and respect for all. Juvenile-focused restorative justice programs are being used to prevent violence in schools, through community organizations, and even legal proceedings. By interrupting cycles of violence without using outdated disciplinary models, we can also interrupt mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, offering young people a chance to forge their own path in life that is not consumed by violence.
As we enter Wear Orange Weekend, take a moment to remember the young lives cut short by gun violence. Thousands of young people just like Hadiya Pendleton are lost every year to firearm homicide and suicide. Their loss echoes through families, schools, and communities — long past the moment a gun is fired. We must continue to support evidence-based solutions to end youth gun violence by working to offer a life of opportunity and abundance for our young people. In the words of Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Hadiya’s mother, “If we gave the young people something to do, if we provide them with love and care, it would lift the awareness to the young that their voices matter, their lives matter.”
Cierra Hinckson is a student organizer for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, and pursuing a B.A. in political science at Vanderbilt University.