Victims of stray bullets often children

August 4, 2011 1:04:12 PM PDT
Chris Rodriguez was taking a piano lesson around 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2008, at a North Oakland music school. Across the street, an inebriated man robbed a gas station, firing three shots at an attendant.

None of the bullets hit their intended target.

Instead, one cut through the school's wall and Chris' spine, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, paralyzing the 10-year-old boy's legs.

That shooting spurred the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis to examine stray bullet injuries and deaths.

The findings from a year's worth of data, to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, show Chris' case was not an anomaly. Young children make up a disproportionate number of victims, and buildings do not reliably stop bullets.

There is no data set that tracks stray bullet injuries in the United States. So Dr. Garen Wintemute, the program director, and his research team relied on press reports of such shootings from March 2008 through February 2009.

Kids ages 14 and younger made up about 31 percent of the 317 people hit by stray bullets nationwide in cases the study identified. This age group accounts for only 20 percent of the general population, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

A majority of the shootings were "incidental to violence," but 81 percent of those wounded did not know who pulled the trigger.

This detachment, in which victims cannot see the violence coming, fuels fear in neighborhoods where crime is common.

"People don't let their children play outside; they don't go outside themselves," Wintemute said. "They do all their business in the morning when, as it turns out, the risk of these shootings is the least."

Most victims survived, as Chris has.

Twenty-eight percent of victims were indoors at the time, with a stray bullet moving through wood, drywall, brick or tile.

A relatively small number of injuries (13) involved celebratory shots fired into the air. Although rare, those bullets are particularly dangerous.

"When fired into the air, bullets can return to the ground at speeds greater than 200 (feet per second), a sufficient force to penetrate the human skull and cause serious injury or death," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote in a 2004 report on New Year's Eve gunfire in Puerto Rico.

Wintemute is completing a more extensive report that will include case studies in addition to the numbers. But he says there are few ways to reduce stray bullet injuries without reducing gun violence.

"We could recommend that the outer walls of buildings be bulletproof, or that there be a bulletproof area within each home or apartment, that shower stalls be made of steel," Wintemute said. "But that's crazy talk."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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