St. Louis Leads America in Child Murders — and It’s Getting Worse | Feature | St. Louis | St. Louis News and Events
He was only thirteen, but Clifford “Nunu” Swan III was afraid of death. Three of his cousins had been murdered in the past two years, and Nunu, unwilling to be the next, told his older brother Donald about the plans to get a gun.
Donald, then twenty, a former weed dealer who had spent his teenage years avoiding the problems in the North City, reprimanded him. “You don’t need a gun,” he advised. “You have your hands. You can fight.”
Donald always tried to protect Nunu, the family’s soft-hearted joke. None of their fathers were around, and the older boy helped raise the younger, orchestrating bowling and go-karting trips. When Nunu had questions – like when he wanted to play around with a girl for the first time or needed a new joke for school – a conversation broke out in Donald’s bedroom. As his little brother’s rap skills developed, Donald promised to be his manager.
Her mother worked as a nurse to support the boys and three siblings, but the family spun around ten houses and drove Donald into a robbery, a source of clothing and other sundries. He made his first attempt at a BB gun when he was twelve before switching to handguns. After another family funeral, Donald pulled back his bulletproof vest and gave up street life. At nineteen, he felt he had surpassed the chances of youth in St. Louis.
This attitude may seem hyperbolic if not the realities around it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, St. Louis has been the America leader in per capita child murders by county since 2012. In other words, Americans under eighteen are eight times more likely to be killed in St. Louis than the rest of the country. In 2019, the city saw thirteen child murders, most in a decade – until the number rose to seventeen last year. And although it’s only March, eight children have been killed in St. Louis by 2021, including a nine-year-old boy who was shot in a car in LaSalle Park on Sunday and a teen who was shot in the back of the head for less than 24 hours later became in the West End neighborhood. The situation is similarly dire in St. Louis County, where Nunu’s family recently moved. The percentage of black children killed there ranks twelfth in the country.
The local situation mirrors an alarming national pattern: the number of youth homicides in America has risen stubbornly every year between 2013 and 2019, the last year in government, apart from a slight decrease in 2018. And a respectable if less, according to the Gun Violence Archive official national database, child gun killings rose last year.
Two summers ago St. Louis felt dismay after seven children under the age of twelve were fatally shot, including a two-year-old and a three-year-old. All were black. Mayor Lyda Krewson offered $ 25,000 for information about child murders, while Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted his concerns about dead children in St. Louis. Collective grief reached another crescendo last January when a seven-year-old girl was fatally shot in a parked car in the Central West End. None of the 30 child murders in 2019 and 2020 were prosecuted.
Despite this bloody backdrop, Donald’s reassuring message seemed to resonate with Nunu during their sober conversation in the summer of 2019.
“As long as you have me, you are safe,” promised Donald. “You will not die.”
Three weeks later, Nunu’s mother, Trina Houshmand, received a call from her panicked daughter: “There was a shooter. Nobody can find Nunu.”
Houshmand was confused; Her eighth-grade son had just called from her mother’s Spanish Village apartment complex asking for permission to go to the store for a cupcake. But there had been shots, her daughter explained, and Nunu didn’t answer the phone. When Houshmand arrived at the complex, the police had cordoned off the sidewalk. Later, at the hospital, a doctor appeared with serious news: Nunu had been fatally shot in the head. Houshmand’s blood pressure rose to dangerous levels and caused the medical staff to calm her down in a room next to Nunus.
Shortly before, Donald raced into the hospital. If Nunu can only see me he’ll stay alive, he thought. When he heard the news, he fell to the ground. For months after that, he had flashbacks of Nunu lying lifeless on a hospital bed. It shouldn’t be my little brother. I grew up protecting him. Two days after the murder, St. Louis organizers held a mothers’ march honoring the children killed so far this year. When Nunu’s name was read, Houshmand wailed as her body trembled on the floor.
When he died, Nunu became part of a numbing national tale. Not only is child killing increasing across America, but victims’ ages are also tending to be younger. Between 2015 and 2019, there was a 19 percent increase in thirteen, fourteen and fifteen-year-old murder victims compared to the previous five-year period, according to an RFT analysis. For black Americans, the increase was 35 percent. (Black children are eight times more likely to die of murder than white children.) After decades of car accidents being the leading cause of death for 13-15 year olds, gun deaths (including suicides) have definitely dwarfed them for the past four years recorded.
When assessing the causes, many experts cite a lack of national research funding. In the decade that began in 2008, the U.S. government spent only $ 597 per death on research into child gun injury prevention, according to a recent health study. “A thirty-fold increase … or at least $ 37 million a year is required for research funding to match the mortality burden,” the study concluded.
“We left children with this disease,” says Rebecca Cunningham, professor at the University of Michigan, doctor and lead author of the study. “We are spending billions of dollars on childhood cancer funding, which has resulted in cures, but we chose not to address this problem, and the results are devastating.”
Last year, St. Louis Children’s Hospital treated 150 children for severe gunshot wounds – well above the previous record of 97 in 2008, according to Dr. Martin Keller, the medical director of the hospital for trauma. The situation meant that burned-out colleagues stopped. “The number seems to be increasing every year. It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting, and in our eyes it’s completely unnecessary.
“These are not children who develop cancer or are born with a repairable defect,” he adds, noting that female victims are becoming more common. “We only repair holes that create bullets. We do not prevent anything.”
Just as gun victims are getting younger in St. Louis, so are children who own guns getting younger through purchase, trade, or the diversion from a legal owner – a clear cultural shift that has occurred over the past decade. “The youngest I had contact with was ten years old,” recalls Andre Smith, a former St. Louis police officer who retired in 2018 to become a professor of political science at Harris-Stowe State University. In poorer areas, he adds, “it’s easier for these young children to get a gun than a computer.”