Huddled in a backyard shed in Sulphur Springs, the four boys examined their prize: a .380-caliber pistol so smooth it looked like a futuristic toy.
One of the boys had stolen it from his uncle. They thought it was unloaded, so they passed it around, pointing it at each other like in the movies, until it fired, its bullet tearing a hole in Ikeim Boswell’s neck.
Ikeim died that night, March 14, 2015, at Tampa General Hospital. He was 16.
Gun injuries are a growing problem for Florida’s children, rising along with the increasing availability of firearms across the state, the Tampa Bay Times has found.
To determine how many kids are shot each year — accidentally, intentionally or during the commission of a crime — the Times looked at millions of hospital discharge records for patients across Florida, as well as data collected by the state’s 24 medical examiners.
The analysis found that, between 2010 and 2015, nearly 3,200 kids 17 and younger were killed or injured by firearms. Put another way, a child in Florida was shot, on average, every 17 hours.
From 2010 through 2015, the number of kids killed in gun-related incidents rose nearly 20 percent. Injuries from guns jumped 26 percent from 2014 to 2015 alone.
“That’s a very rapid increase,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, who runs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California Davis School of Medicine.
Firearms killed 475 kids during that six-year span — slightly less than cancer, but more than cardiovascular, infectious or respiratory diseases.
Meanwhile, hospitals statewide billed more than $100 million for pediatric gun injuries. More than $75 million of that was billed to a publicly subsidized insurance provider such as Medicaid or Florida KidCare.
“This is a major problem for our children,” said Dr. Judy Schaechter, chair of the pediatrics department at the University of Miami Health System. “I call it America’s most preventable disease.”
Yet ask state law enforcement officials how many kids are shot each year, and they don’t know. The Florida Department of Health has a statewide campaign to reduce drownings, but nothing aimed at reducing the number of child gun incidents, which kill roughly as many children 17 and under.
“We have an epidemic,” said Dr. Leopoldo Malvezzi, trauma director at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. “And nobody is doing anything about it.”
As children age, guns become a deadly reality
Here are the top 10 ways children in Florida died in 2015. Guns deaths, including homicides, suicides and accidents, are No. 6.
But many deaths are stillbirths and children who die shortly after birth from complications. After the first few weeks of life, the picture changes dramatically. By the time a child is 1, the list looks like this.
By the time a child is 5, guns are the second-leading cause of death.
By the time a child is 14, he or she is nearly as likely to die from a gunshot wound than in a car crash.
It happens in big cities like Miami and small ones like Marianna, across all races and income groups. Children arrive in emergency rooms with gunshot wounds to the head, chest, stomach. Others never make it to the hospital. They die where they were hit.
About 80 percent of the youths shot between 2010 and 2015 were teenagers, the Times analysis found. But some were far younger. Nearly 30 children under age 5 went to the hospital for gun injuries each year.
Most of the injured or dead were boys. A disproportionate share — roughly two-thirds — were black. Black boys were two times more likely to be shot than white boys in 2015, the analysis found.
In the hospital data, most cases were categorized as accidents, assaults or self-injury.
Accidents accounted for about 45 percent of all incidents — and were by far the fastest-growing category. The uptick: nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2015.
The hospital data did not provide details about the circumstances of each shooting. But research by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety shows unintentional shootings involving children often take place at the home or the home of a friend or family member. Younger children tend to shoot themselves. Older children are often shot by someone else.