As fathers ourselves, and pediatricians, we join the rest of the country in mourning the tragic and preventable deaths of the children in Connecticut last week, and our love and sympathy goes out to all the families of the children, the school, and the communities they lived in. Although Boston is one of the safest cities in the country, The Boston Globe’s series on the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood in Boston reminds us of the quiet toll of gun violence.
According to the Washington Post, these tragic events may lead to a serious political discussion of legislative and regulatory approaches to protecting our children from firearms death. If history is any guide, we can expect the rhetoric to heat up considerably on both sides of the issue. A recent policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics lays out some of the things that we know about guns and children in the United States. Here is the statement:
While we have made considerable progress in reducing gun deaths in the United States over the past decade, firearms still account for a high proportion of childhood deaths in the United States; only motor vehicle crashes cause more injury deaths. The firearms death rate in the United States is more than ten times higher than in other industrialized countries.
Research has shown that programs aimed at teaching children and adolescents about gun safety don’t work; the lessons taught simply can’t overcome the natural curiosity of children or the impulsiveness of teenagers. The only proven effective strategies are those that limit childhood access to guns. Simply put, the safest home for children and adolescents is a home without guns. In home with guns, the simple precaution of keeping guns locked and unloaded with ammunition locked separately saves lives.
These observations are most dramatic in the case of teen suicides. Youth suicide attempts are often triggered by acute events — a fight with parents, breakup with a girlfriend, or seemingly overwhelming problems at school. Suicide attempts by firearms typically lead to death ,while those by other means lead to therapy. Research has shown that the rate of teen suicide deaths follows the presence of guns in the home.
Not all guns are created equal. More than two-thirds of the firearms deaths of young Americans result from handgun use. Military-style assault weapons capable of shooting at rapid rates with high volume magazines facilitate the type of massacre seen in Newtown and in Aurora; the American Academy of Pediatrics advocates for reviving the now expired assault weapons ban, which should also include bans on the sale of high capacity magazines for civilian use.
Although the public health implications of firearms are dramatic, the federal government has done little to study this issue. The major federal public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control, in response to Congressional pressure, does not fund public health research forested to reducing firearms injuries. Public health approaches have reduced automotive fatalities, sudden infant death, bicycle-related deaths and myriad other injury deaths.
Here are some simple steps that we as a nation can take to help protect our children:
1. Renew the assault weapons ban that expired a decade ago.
2. Restrict access to guns and ammunition by strengthening background check procedures, and closing gun show and internet sales loopholes.
3. Require safe storage of weapons - always stored locked and unloaded.
4. Free the federal public health agencies from political pressures that have prevented us from developing a public health approach to firearms injuries and deaths
Robert Sege is a doctor at Boston Medical Center and co-author of the national American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement. John O’Reilly is a doctor at Baystate Medical Center and President of the Massachusetts chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics.