Gun violence is increasing, leading to more young North Carolinians in the courts and the cemeteries.
A teenager is involved in a shooting almost daily in central North Carolina and as the death toll increases, so do the consequences.
The ABC11 I-Team found more than 5,400 children faced a juvenile petition for a weapon-related offense in 2022 across the state. The number of petitions has been steadily increasing since 2019 with nearly 2,000 more petitions filed in 2022 than in 2020.
"They're bringing them to schools, they're committing crimes with them, and things that used to be low-level crimes that juveniles commit, you involve a firearm in that incident, and all suddenly you've upped the stakes tremendously," explained William Lassiter, the deputy secretary with the NCDPS Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Last year 88% more juvenile petitions were filed for weapon-related offenses than before the pandemic.
Part of that increase is because in 2019, the state law changed so that 16- and 17-year-old criminals were no longer automatically tried in adult court.
"The older population is more likely to have those weapons, however, what we're seeing -- even since 'Raise the Age' went into effect in 2019 -- is that the data continues to increase," Lassiter explained. "So, we think that a large portion of that is due to the fact that there's more access to those weapons."
The number of weapon-related offenses increased statewide over the last two years. Half of North Carolina counties reported at least 52% increase in weapon-related juvenile petitions filled between 2020 to 2022. However, Wake County reported three times as many juvenile petitions filed in 2022 than in 2020.
The NC Department of Public Safety reported in 2018 only 3% of the complaints against juveniles were related to firearms. Last year, that percentage jumped to 13%.
Lassiter said recently the state did a study and found the top ways kids are getting guns is from their own homes or from stealing them.
"We're seeing gangs are trying to influence our young people to steal weapons as a way to jump into the gang," he said. "They've been trained by the gangs exactly where to look for those weapons and a lot of people are leaving them on the front seat of their cars, or in the dash, or in the glove compartment."
Lassiter said the state also alarmingly found 30% of kids in the state reported they could get access to a gun within an hour.
Wake County Sheriff sergeants Matthew Desilva and D. Crawford oversee the student resource officers in Wake County and regularly work with students. They said they've felt the increase in weapons in classrooms.
"Some of the weapons we find on kids they say they do have them for protection -- whether it be from someone in the neighborhood or someone at school -- they are concerned about their safety," Crawford explained.
"It is very scary that they have to think like that and don't feel safe coming to school or riding the school bus sometimes," Desilva said. "They feel like they have to have a weapon on them at all times to protect themselves."
While more kids are carrying guns, Crawford explained he doesn't think most students are aware of the consequences of carrying a gun, especially on campus.
Unsurprisingly, another major factor in the rise in petitions and overall offenses is an uptick in mental health challenges. Lassiter explained all the children in juvenile justice facilities are diagnosed with at least one mental-health-related problem, half are diagnosed with five or more.
"The pandemic messed a lot of that up, because a lot of those early intervention services that we had during the pandemic shut down, and they weren't available to young people and so you're seeing the cost now," Lassiter said. "If there was ever a true social experiment about how important these services are for kids, the pandemic showed it, because now these kids are committing very serious crimes."
Even though courts and counseling have increased, Lassiter said their facilities are overcapacity and have half of their staffing positions open. He said this combination makes it challenging for the state to provide a safe environment to help offer children the best resources and care to ensure they don't re-offend.
"Juvenile Justice is all about rehabilitation and providing a therapeutic option to try to keep these kids out of the adult system. Because if they end up in the adult system, the taxpayers in the state of North Carolina (are) going to be paying for that kid for the rest of their lives," Lassiter said.
Moving forward, stakeholders said it is going to take a multifaceted approach with all members of the community coming together to educate children about guns and their consequences along with lawmakers investing in mental health resources.
"This is the opportunity that we need to take to say let's stop that trend from becoming a long-term trend in our society. And I think we can do that. But we've got to take a concerted effort to focus on mental health services," Lassiter said.
A simple solution everyone can be a part of is properly storing firearms and locking all guns up.