More young children in Los Angeles County were killed by firearms in 1998 than the year before, and one-fourth of them were slain by a parent who then committed suicide, according to a report being issued today by gun-control advocates.
The alarming figures cut against the grain of a sharp, overall decline in gun-related deaths in the county and nationwide. The executive director of Women Against Gun Violence, the group that issued the report, was at a loss to explain the reported 10% increase in gun-related deaths among children ages 14 and younger.
"We certainly don't know why," said Susan Shaw, "but it clearly shows that the kids of L.A. County are at risk and that we haven't done enough yet to prevent gun violence."
It was the third year running that the group has issued a report on gun-related deaths in the county based on an examination of death certificates. During that time, the overall news has been good: Such deaths declined 22%, from 1,398 in 1996 to 1,088 in 1998.
Among people ages 18 and under there was an impressive 33% decline in gun-related deaths in the three years since the group began issuing its report.
In 1998, gun-related deaths in this age group fell 16% from 1997. That still means 158 young people lost their lives last year to gunshots, either in a homicide, suicide or accident. Of those, 24 were age 14 or younger, the group registering the 10% increase. It was the second year in a row that firearm deaths rose in this age group.
Susan Sorenson, a professor of public health at UCLA who studies violence epidemiology, said the increase was probably nothing more than a "statistical blip," not evidence of a trend. Nationally, firearm-related deaths for those 14 and under continue to decline, she said. The L.A. County figures are based on such a small number of cases that they are not likely to be statistically significant, she added.
Nevertheless, the two top officials of Women Against Gun Violence, Shaw and Chairwoman Ann Reiss Lane, said the increase points to the need for stronger gun-control laws.
Although they applauded the California Legislature for passing some of the nation's toughest new firearm laws in the past year, they said more restrictions are needed.
"I think it's time we joined other civilized societies that do not allow private persons to own handguns," Lane said.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. agreed that more needs to be done to deter gun violence but said the fault lies in lax enforcement of existing gun laws.
"All of this occurred in one of the most restrictive counties in the country in terms of gun laws," said the NRA's national spokesman, Bill Powers. "So I think that should tell you something is not working. Throwing another little law on top of those in place doesn't seem to make sense."
The report showed that, once again, Latinos, the county's most populous ethnic group, suffered the highest number of firearm-related deaths.
African Americans suffered gun fatalities at a far higher rate, however. Although black people account for only 10% of the county's population, they constituted 24% of those killed in 1998 by firearms.
The increase in deaths among the very young came, in part, from three cases in which parents took their children's lives and then their own:
* Sometime around Jan. 29, 1998, 25-year-old Sylvia Martinez of La Puente apparently used a semiautomatic handgun to kill her husband and their two children, Abygail Martinez-Gil, 6, and Alex Gil Martinez, 3. She then killed herself.
* On Feb. 3, 1998, Gustavo Gonzalez, 29, allegedly killed his 20-month-old daughter, Gessica, with a shotgun and then turned the weapon on himself.
* On Aug. 4, 1998, 40-year-old carpenter and painter Cesar Orantes, apparently using a .357-caliber magnum revolver, shot and killed his estranged wife and their three children, Douglas, 13; Jennifer, 10; and Cesar Jr., 4.
Figures from the county coroner's office confirm that firearms are far and away the weapon of choice for those who kill.
In 1988, there were 1,522 homicides in the county. Of those, 1,043, or 69%, were committed with a gun. Knives were the second most common weapon used.
In 1992, the peak year for violent death in the county, there were 2,116 homicides. Of those, 1,639, or 77%, involved a gun. Since then, homicides have declined sharply, while the percentage committed with a gun has stayed fairly constant.