WHILE MASSACHUSETTS already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, and took steps last year to tighten access to firearms, the data show there are simple measures that could be taken to further curb gun violence. One glaring place to start is to recognize that gun violence against the most vulnerable members of society — children and youth — is largely preventable. Massachusetts health care providers could lead the nation in helping lower the rate of firearm suicides among teenagers by adopting a requirement to advise parents about the risks of guns in the home.
Many lives could be saved. In 2010, 51 percent of all suicides in the United States were by gun. Studies show that a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide for everyone living in the household: the gun owner, the gun owner’s spouse, and the gun owner’s children.
So it’s only sensible that pediatricians and other child health care professionals counsel parents about the dangers of allowing children to have access to guns inside and outside the home. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians add questions about the presence and availability of firearms to their patient histories. They also urge that doctors go a step further and urge parents who possess guns to prevent access by children.
Safer storage of guns reduces injuries, and physician counseling linked with distribution of cable locks appears to increase safer storage. All the same, the safest home for a child or adolescent is one without firearms. “There’s evidence that suggests that even when we teach kids gun safety, children will still play with guns. Children’s curiosity is a wonderful thing, but it can get them into trouble,” said Dr. Robert Sege, a Brookline-based pediatrician who co-authored the AAP’s policy statement on physicians and guns.
Unfortunately, the National Rifle Association acted pre-emptively to stop pediatric gun counseling. In Florida, the NRA lobbied to make it illegal for doctors to question patients regarding guns, citing gun owners’ rights to privacy and constitutional rights. So in 2011, the Sunshine state passed what is known as the “gun-gag” law prohibiting doctors from discussing gun safety with patients. It was upheld last year by a federal court. At least 10 other states have introduced similar bills since the Florida legislation was signed into law in 2011, according to the AAP.
Here is a chance for Massachusetts to go in the other direction, and make the safety of children and adolescents a public safety priority.