Like a growing number of North Carolina teens, Tavisa Nicole Cartnail caught a bullet that wasn't meant for her.
Tavisa, a 14-year-old who lived in Durham, died Sunday night after a bullet unleashed by a raving bystander sailed toward her friend's car and struck her, according to Durham police and witnesses. Police have yet to find Tavisa's killer.
While random, Tavisa's death is not uncommon. The number of North Carolina children under 18 shot to death at the hands of another gradually rose after 2001, then surged by more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2005. In 2005, homicides involving guns became the second leading cause of death among North Carolina teens, trailing only motor vehicle accidents.
Like Tavisa, about 40 percent of the 39 youngsters shot to death that year were not the intended target. Such senselessness makes it harder for their loved ones to come to terms with the loss.
"Everybody's devastated. This doesn't seem real for someone to do something like this to people you don't even know," Tavisa's aunt Shanekka Wardlow said this week.
The solution to deaths like Tavisa's eludes child advocates, police and those who lobby for gun ownership rights. The recent surge, though, makes the problem hard to ignore.
"The sheer number of them was a big shock," said Krista Ragan, a child death investigator at the state medical examiner's office who spotted the problem. "Then, when you start looking at what led to them, it's even more startling."
Some of the children, such as Tavisa, entered the path of a bullet meant for another or no one at all. Others, such as 16-year-old Jerticha Ford of Raeford who died Wednesday, stood nearby while someone played with a gun and accidentally fired it.
Among the North Carolina youths killed with guns in 2005:
* QuaShawn Janay Stokes, 17, a high school cheerleader and honor student, was shot in Winston-Salem in July 2005 after two groups of young people exchanged fire after a scuffle. Stokes had been standing nearby in the strip-mall parking lot.
* Elaine Paige Monger, 16, was shot at a party outside Charlotte in August 2005 when a young man unleashed a bullet at her chest while fiddling with his pistol.
* Marc Philippeaux, 17, a Bunn High School basketball star, was shot in January 2005 after peering over the hood of a car as a group of strangers used an assault rifle to spray a crowd of teens partying after a basketball game in Franklin County.
* Shakita Archer, 14, of Wilson was shot in the head in February 2005 when a man at her hairdresser's house accidentally fired his gun while cleaning it with a fork.
After Ragan's analysis of the shootings, leaders of the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, a legislative study commission, created a subcommittee six months ago to tackle the rise in gun-related deaths.
"Anything having to do with guns is such a politically polarizing issue," said Selena Berrier, executive director of the task force. "But no matter where people fall on the political spectrum, everyone wants to protect kids from gun violence."
Berrier brought together representatives from law enforcement, the National Rifle Association, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence and several legislators to figure out how to tackle the problem. They've agreed to start campaigns aimed at teaching gun owners how to store their firearms safely and advising young people what to do when they see a gun.
Youths are already widely exposed to weapons such as guns. In 2005, nearly 22 percent of North Carolina high schoolers reported they routinely carried a dangerous weapon, such as a gun, according to a risk-behavior survey conducting by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six percent of North Carolina teens said they had carried a gun to school and had been threatened or injured by a dangerous weapon at school.
On some city streets, guns are as easy to obtain as hard drugs, said Rob Faggart, coordinator of the Durham Police Department's Project Safe Neighborhood program, which aims to curb the illegal drug trade. Teens connected with gangs and drugs are particularly plugged into the gun trade, he said.
Gun violence is getting worse in Durham; violent crime in the city rose 32 percent last year. Sunday, Tavisa was the fourth person shot in four days in Durham; another victim was a 14-year-old boy, shot in a store parking lot after running an errand with his mother.
The prevalence of gun violence makes it difficult to keep children like Tavisa safe.
"You've got to attack the problem from a much bigger level," Faggart said. "We've grown to accept it as a normal part of life. No one thinks it's good, but we want to get past people saying, 'That's the way it is around here.' "
(Staff writer Stanley B. Chambers Jr. and news researchers Lamara Hackett-Williams and Denise Jones contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Mandy Locke can be reached at 829-8927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.