The number of Utah kids and teens dying by gunfire hit a record high in 2020

Sep 30, 2022, 7:34 AM | Updated: 12:31 pm

This story is the first in a series examining the impact of gun violence on Utah’s children and exploring solutions to help keep kids safe.  

WEST JORDAN, Utah — Bry Hansen keeps reminders of his 17-year-old son close by.

Jake Hansen’s dog plays in the yard and his car’s parked in the driveway. But it’s been almost a year since the teenager has thrown a ball for his pitbull, Ace, or cruised around the neighborhood.

Jake, 17, was shot and killed at his family’s home in West Jordan last October, police said, by a 19-year-old who wanted to rob him.

“It’s senseless,” Bry Hansen said. “Even if your kids are 17, you’ve still got to watch them. You think they’re old enough, but really, they’re not. You don’t realize that until it’s too late.”

Jake is part of a tragic trend in Utah that spiked in 2020, when firearm deaths among Utahns 18 and younger hit a record high, at 42, according to state data.

While the majority of those deaths — 24 — were suicides, a sharp increase in homicides also helped drive the shift. One child was just 2 years old. But many of the victims were older teens.

The state lost more Utahns 18 and younger to gunfire in 2020 than car crashes or other sorts of injuries, shows data from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.  That’s in line with a national shift in the same direction.

The KSL Investigators dove deeper into the Utah data, examining homicides and accidental deaths among kids 17 and younger — not yet legal adults or old enough to lawfully buy guns themselves.

Using news reports, obituaries, 911 calls and a database maintained by the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, we found these deaths jumped to 13 in 2020 – more than double the average – about six – over the previous six years.

In a single, devastating afternoon in January 2020, three victims – siblings Alexis, Milan and Matthew Haynie — were shot in January 2020 by their 16-year-old brother, CJ.

Last year, the grim tally fell to six.

Among those children: Zaydanielys Rodriguez, 7, struck by a stray bullet in Heber City; and Lance Moorhead, 13, shot by another child in West Jordan who told police he thought the weapon was unloaded.

The violence has continued this year. Earlier this year, Hunter High freshmen Tivani Lopati, 14, and Paul Tahi, 15, were shot and killed by a classmate outside their school in West Valley City, police said.

Deborah Gatrell, a U.S. Army veteran and a Hunter High social studies teacher who counted Tivani among her students, said these tragedies have a ripple effect.

“What happened should never have happened,” Gatrell said. “It’s tragic, not just for the students who were shot, not just for the students who died. It’s also tragic for everyone who was there and saw it because they’re traumatized.”

Speaking as a gun owner, not in her role as a teacher, she has another message: If you own a gun, it’s your responsibility to lock it up. When firearms aren’t stored properly and get into the hands of those who shouldn’t have them, Gatrell noted, the owners often aren’t held responsible.

“So, we just kind of have this lackadaisical gun culture that continues where people are dying,” she said.

Nathan Malan, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, is on the state’s public health team reviewing every case of a child injured and killed, with the goal of spotting trends that can inform prevention strategies.

“It’s so heartbreaking,” he said, “as kids are finding the firearm that the dad has in the truck or finding the firearm that the parents are wanting to keep in a place where they can use it quickly if there’s a home invasion.”

He says Utah’s rate of gun ownership — higher than most other states — could help explain the climbing rate.

“You’re so much more likely to have those guns used in the wrong way, by someone in your own household, if you have them,” Malan said.

But gun owners can take action to prevent that, he added, by locking away guns and ammunition in separate places and making sure kids don’t know the codes or where to find the keys.

Those steps are crucial, said Terri Gilfillan of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah.

She notes polling shows just over half of Utahns have a firearm at home. And while they may not be worried about kids using them to hurt themselves or someone else, she said, parents don’t always know what’s running through their children’s minds.

“This is a public health crisis,” she said. “We need to address it as a public health crisis.”

Gilfillan is especially concerned about the rise in gun sales early in the pandemic, she said.

The number of background checks – required of licensed dealers in firearm sales — nearly doubled in Utah from 2019-2020, according to data from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Identification.

In West Jordan, Bry Hansen said he hears about someone getting shot almost every day. And while he told KSL TV he doesn’t have the answers, he wants more people to know about the problem.

“It’s getting bad. People don’t realize it yet,” Hansen said. “I didn’t see it coming.”

Almost a year ago, it was Jake’s mother Andrea Strong who rushed to save her son. In a recording of a 911 call, she’s heard pleading with Jake to stay with her and telling a dispatcher it’s too late.

“Why didn’t they kill me?” Strong says in the recording. “Why did they take my little boy?”

She died about a month and a half after her son — in large part — Bry Hansen recalled, from the heartache and loss.

“That just killed her,” he said.

Strong had a host of health issues, he said, and chose not to return to a hospital for more treatment after she’d recently been released.

On an afternoon earlier this month, Bry Hansen visited his son’s grave in South Jordan, sporting the cap pallbearers wore almost a year ago, embroidered with “LLJ,” for “Long Live Jake.”

His wife is buried there too. Bry Hansen brushed away grass clippings and placed small pots of flowers at their graves, saying he takes comfort in knowing the mother and son rest there together.

“I just don’t want people to forget,” Hansen said.

For a list of Utah police departments providing free gun locks to the public, visit the Project Child Safe website: https://projectchildsafe.org/safety_kit_site/?safety_kit_state=utah

Follow reporter Daniella Rivera and producer Annie Knox on Twitter: @DaniellaKSL @anniebknox.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call, text, or chat the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 which is answered 24/7/365 by crisis counselors at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. All calls to legacy crisis hotlines, including the old National Suicide Prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255, will also connect to a crisis care worker at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute as well.

Additional resources

  • SafeUT: Parents, students, and educators can connect with a licensed crisis counselor through chat by downloading the SafeUT app  or by calling 833-3SAFEUT (833-372-33888)
  • SafeUT Frontline: First responders, including firefighters, law enforcement, EMS, and healthcare professionals can chat with a licensed crisis counselor at no cost 24/7/365 by downloading the SafeUT Frontline app.
  • SafeUTNG: Members of the National Guard can chat with a licensed crisis counselor at no cost 24/7/365 by downloading the SafeUTNG app.
  • Utah Warm Line: For non-crisis situations, when you need a listening ear as you heal and recover from a personal struggle, call 1-833 SPEAKUT 8:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • The Huntsman Mental Health Institute offers a wide variety of programs and services including suicide prevention and crisis services, hospital treatment, therapy & medication management, substance Use & addiction recovery, child & teen programs, and maternal mental health services including birth trauma, pregnancy loss, infertility, and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
  • LiveOnUtah.org is a statewide effort to prevent suicide by promoting education, providing resources, and changing Utah’s culture around suicide and mental health. They offer resources for faith based groups, LGBTQ+, youth, employers, firearm suicide prevention, and crisis and treatment options.

Other community-based resources

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The number of Utah kids and teens dying by gunfire hit a record high in 2020