International Youth Day
The sound of a handgun firing can travel about a mile. In Brooklyn, that means a single shot can reach thousands, even tens of thousands, of ears. You can’t tell the direction as the harsh sound waves are too distorted by the buildings to be in any way meaningful. In effect, in some parts of Brooklyn, the sound of a gunshot isn’t something to be feared or even addressed at all. Instead, it’s simply a commonplace reminder that gun violence is present and kills with no regard to who dies or who listens.
Unbeknownst to my family when we moved when I was 11, our new block was controlled by a gang who lived mostly in the large apartment complexes at the end of the street. The effect was that there was almost always a police car parked in front of those buildings and it didn’t make you feel any better. You kept your head down and prayed that whatever was going to happen just didn’t happen while you were outside. Kids who grow up with guns around quickly learn when to cross the street, when to smile, when to keep their eyes averted, and when to convincingly show how much they didn’t see anything. Sometimes, sadly, they learn to give in. Probably the best strategy for avoiding gun violence on certain blocks is to try to be “out” in the mornings and home by the afternoon. Of course, this doesn’t always work — plenty of shootings happen right in the middle of the school day anyway. The elementary school around the corner from my block had to “shelter-in” eight times in 2019 (before COVID-19). “Shelter-in” in NYC Department of Education parlance means that an active shooter situation outside prevents any students from leaving the building. The idea is for business to be conducted as usual within school walls, but the children are always aware of the change in schedule and why, effectively creating an atmosphere of fear and terror, and preventing any education from taking place. The persistent trauma that this creates in children cannot be overstated; if you want to find a tangible representation of the heartbreaking impact of gun violence, just visit a Brooklyn public school when it’s forcibly sheltering in place.
Today’s generation of youth is the largest the world has known — more than half of the world’s population is under 30 — and we are inheriting a world with an arsenal of approximately one billion guns. The majority of these guns are in civilian hands and used within civilian populations. According to World Health Organization estimates, youth between the ages of 10 and 29 make up 42 percent of all global homicides — approximately 200,000 per year. Homicide is the fourth leading cause of death in people aged 10–29 years, and 84% of these homicides involve male victims. For every young person killed by gun violence, even more sustain permanent injuries or injuries that require hospitalization. The presence of a gun in the home significantly increases the risk of death in situations of domestic violence, and children in homes with unsecured firearms are at heightened risk of death or injury to themselves or others due to accidental discharge. Among civilians in areas of armed conflict, youth account for most of those adversely affected, including orphans, refugees and internally displaced persons.
In the United States, the CDC estimates that more than 3,000 children and teens are shot and killed every year, and another 15,000 are shot and wounded (an average of 51 youth every day). Moreover, the effects of gun violence extend far beyond that of the perpetrator and victim; according to JAMA Pediatrics, an estimated three million children witness a shooting in the United States every year. The scourges of crime and conflict can have multiple indirect psychological, social, and economic effects, hindering youth access to meaningful education, employment, and other vital opportunities free of violence and abuse — creating a cycle of violence that kills generationally and indiscriminately.
Young people around the world are consistently the ones most affected by gun violence, but young voices are afforded little to no agency in local and state decisions concerning gun violence. Elected (adult) officials are able to ignore the needs and voices of young people, who often do not have the resources, time or know-how to actively participate in small arms control and disarmament efforts. Without critical and acute pressure, officials are able to sideline the issue of gun violence; only through the eyes of a terrified child, helpless to the violence around them, can the desperate need for small arms control and disarmament truly be seen.
Recent UN documents have increasingly called for youth participation in disarmament efforts. This is a necessary first step, but it is only a first step. We need more than disarmament advocates coming together and agreeing that youth perspectives are important — we need those perspectives in the room now, informing strategies and policies for real-world situations and circumstances that are only getting worse. Real progress can be made if we listen to the voices of youth in communities struggling with small arms violence. Without the unique perspectives of those directly impacted by gun violence, the circumstances around that violence will continue to expand and worsen, and disarmament efforts will be thwarted at every turn.
Sebastian Zuba is an intern at the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and a rising senior at Stanford Online High School. Sebastian is passionate about gun control, disarmament and security reform, and enjoys biking in and around the city whenever he can. This blogpost stems from personal experience and highlights the importance of including youth voices in disarmament processes. You can visit his podcast on arms control strategies “Bullet Points: A Podcast on Gun-related Violence and Worldwide Disarmament” here.
This blogpost was written as part of IANSA’s “Civil society engagement in support of gender mainstreamed policies, programmes and actions in the fight against small arms trafficking and misuse, in line with the Women, Peace and Security agenda”, which is funded by the United Nations. This document was produced with the financial assistance of the United Nations through contributions received from the European Union. The views expressed herein are those of the Implementing Partner and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or the European Union