RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Amid a rise in deaths among children involving firearms, members of a state task force said Monday they remain concerned state leaders have not funded a program aimed at educating people about safe storage of firearms. 

Firearm injuries were the leading cause of injury deaths among children in North Carolina in 2021, according to preliminary data shared with members of a committee that’s part of the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force.  

Shana Geary, an epidemiologist with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said there were 116 deaths in 2021 among children involving firearms, which was higher than the 95 deaths tied to motor vehicle crashes. 

In 2020, homicide became the leading cause of death among children ages 1-17, the task force recently reported. In 2021, 80 percent of homicides involved a firearm. 

Hospitalizations of children due to incidents involving firearms rose 120 percent from 2016-20, according to data Geary shared.  

“A lot of these increasing trends are in the context of increased firearm ownership,” Geary said. “There has been increases in firearm ownership throughout the (COVID-19) pandemic. So, that can be contributing in some regard to these especially if those firearms are not stored safely.” 

In the last decade, the task force said there have been more than 600 deaths among children due to firearm injuries.  

The task force has pushed for several years for the General Assembly to pay for a program to raise awareness about safe gun storage.  

The state House of Representatives passed a bill last year almost unanimously to allocate about $155,000 across two years for the awareness initiative and to buy and distribute gun locks. But, the Senate never took up that bill. 

“Studies do show that a significant number of child and youth firearm deaths could be prevented through safe storage,” Kella Hatcher said, the executive director of the NC Child Fatality Task Force. “We’ve got more guns in homes potentially available to either curious young children or teens who are at risk of harming themselves or others. And, it’s something that we just have to recognize is a reality.” 

Geary reported that most of the increase in 2020 and 2021 child suicide deaths was due to increases in firearm suicides. 

“Many suicide attempts are hastily decided upon in a very short-term crisis. But, if a firearm is available, and that’s the means that’s used, it has a much higher fatality rate,” Hatcher said. “Ninety percent of those who attempt suicide and survive don’t go on to die by suicide later. So, it’s important to recognize that an interruption really can make a difference.”  

The task force’s unintentional death committee voted Monday to increase the funding request to the General Assembly to $250,000. The full task force is expected to consider that recommendation at its next meeting on Oct. 31.