Gun violence is seeping onto American sports fields – and it’s impacting kids

Grace Hauck
USA TODAY
  • There have been 41 shootings at sporting events at K-12 schools this academic year.
  • Most of the shootings were at high school football and basketball games, researcher David Riedman said.
  • Firearms became the leading cause of death among children and teens in 2020, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Gunfire sent hundreds of kids and parents scattering at a flag football game in northern Virginia last Sunday morning. Many took shelter behind trees and bushes near the field.

The incident came on the heels of two other shootings that struck panic at youth sporting events this week. Researchers say the gunfire is indicative of heightened gun violence in the U.S. – and record levels of shootings at sporting events on school grounds.

"You wake up on a Sunday morning, and you think you're gonna go have an enjoyable day of football with your kids. And it's just unfortunate that gun violence ruined it," said Toya Smith, 44, whose son was warming up to play the next game at the Virginia field when shots rung out.

Two men were injured on the outdoor fields of Benton Middle School in Manassas after an argument escalated and a third man fired multiple rounds at the others, police said. First-responders later carried one of the injured men past the group of elementary and middle school students as their parents turned them away and covered their eyes.

"Kids that age shouldn't be exposed to that kind of thing – ever, really. But I guess it's just the world that we live in today," Smith said.

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There were 31 shootings at sporting events at K-12 schools in 2021 – more than any since at least 1970, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database. There have been 10 more so far this year.

"Most of the shootings were at high school football and basketball games," said lead database researcher David Riedman."Most involved teenage students or non-students attending the games and resulted from a dispute that escalated into a shooting."

The database, based at the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security, documents every instance a gun is brandished or fired or a bullet hits school property for any reason.

In January, a teen fatally shot another in the parking lot of a Wisconsin high school after a basketball game. In February, a teen was injured outside an Alabama high school after a game. In March, a student and teacher were shot outside a Boston school while on a fan bus bound for a game.

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Many more shootings affecting youth sporting events happen off school property and are not included in the K-12 School Shooting Database, such as two shootings just last week.

Dozens of shots prompted teams to duck for cover at a high school baseball game in Chicago Thursday evening. Police said someone fired the shots at McDonald's drive-thru across the street from the field.

"Yesterday’s incident in our neighborhood was disturbing and a sad reminder that violence can occur anywhere at any time," said John Donahue, interim president of St Rita of Cascia High School. "We thank our security staff and law enforcement for their quick response. We remain fully committed to the safety of our students, faculty, staff, parents, and guests."

Days earlier, on April 25, two groups exchanged dozens of rounds at a public park near a youth baseball game in North Charleston, South Carolina, officials said.

Viral video of the incident shared to social media shows some children throwing baseball equipment to the ground and running as others dive to the grass. Parents can be heard screaming for their children as some cry.

"Get off the field!" one person yells.

"Roll that way! Roll that way!" says another.

In a press conference the following day, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the incident "destroyed the hearts of a lot of people – mothers, fathers, children out here participating in sports within our city."

He said a police officer will be present at every city recreational event for the near future.

"The uptick in gun violence is happening nationally, and now we see it affect our city," he said. "We cannot stand by and allow this to continue to happen."

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Last September alone, there were at least 20 incidents of guns or gun violence at a youth sporting event, gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety found. That month, the group penned a letter to U.S. Youth Soccer calling on organization to prohibit guns at games.

Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he was not aware of a data set that tracks shootings at youth sporting events, specifically.

"Shootings are up across the board, so it is not surprising to see shootings at youth sporting events because, unfortunately, in America, no place is free from gun violence," Horwitz said.

Firearms became the leading cause of death among children and teenagers in the U.S. in 2020, overtaking motor vehicle accidents, according to recent research using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 23% of the more than 45,000 firearm-related deaths that year were of people ages 1 to 19, researchers from the University of Michigan found.

The rise in shootings at sporting events on school grounds also coincides with a general rise in shootings on school grounds.

"We are continuing to see more shootings than any prior year in the database since 1970," Riedman said. "So far in 2022, there have already been 109 shootings in the first 122 days of the year."

There were 249 incidents in 2021 – more than twice any other year before that, Riedman said. Shootings during sporting events accounted for about 12% of the incidents, he said.

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It's hard to be sure why gun violence is rising, Horwitz said. He pointed to a number of possible factors, including a decrease of social supports associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, rising gun sales, increased alcohol use and an easing of restrictions of carrying guns in public in many states.

More kids are getting their hands on guns and using them in an escalating number of murders, suicides and accidental shootings, a USA TODAY report last month found.

Some minors grab legally owned firearms from their homes, commit home burglaries and car break-ins, or obtain guns through gang connections. Youth are increasingly using homemade firearms typically purchased over the internet, according to the ATF.

Ghost guns, which lack serial numbers, turn up frequently at crime scenes, according to law enforcement. The privately made firearms can be assembled from do-it-yourself kits purchased online or in a store. Last month, President Joe Biden announced federal regulations to target the untraceable firearms.

"The ubiquitous nature of gun violence is related to a set of systemic choices including disinvestment in communities most impacted by gun violence and a lack of comprehensive gun violence prevention laws," Horwitz said. "We can't stop every shooting but there are solutions that work and, as a country, we need to start prioritizing those solutions."

After the shooting Sunday, Smith said her son was "shaken up."

"Him and I talked about, you know, this can happen anywhere. You see on the news, it happens at church. It happens at school. So you can't just pinpoint where it's going to happen," she said.

Smith said she's planning to allow her son to continue with his football league.

"This was none of their doing, and I feel comfortable with my son returning to play with his team," Smith said.