By Dennis Z. Kuo and Gale R. Burstein
As pediatricians, we see the toll of too many firearms: children who are killed and injured, children who are exposed to violence, and children who live in fear, every day, of being shot. We say enough.
It’s not just the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, or any number of mass school shootings in recent years. It’s also shootings that happen in and outside the home, whether murder, suicide, or unintentional. Every year over two thousand children and teenagers die from firearms. Tens of thousands are injured. Firearm-related deaths are one of the top three causes of death in childhood, and for adolescents, the second leading cause.
The issue is straightforward. There are more than 350 million guns in circulation in the United States – more than one gun per person – and approximately one in three households with children have guns. Children are naturally curious and impulsive and the brain does not fully mature until the early 20s. The majority of young children know where their parents keep their firearms and a significant percentage have handled those firearms. Almost 9 out of 10 unintentional shooting deaths occur in the home, often from children playing with a loaded gun. Suicide rates are higher in households with firearms because firearms are highly lethal.
Exposure to violence – real and perceived – is taking a long-term toll on our children. Many of our children now attend schools with locked doors, metal detectors, and security officers. In some states, even staff and teachers are armed. Mass shooter drills are common and many children cannot go to school without fear of being shot. We increasingly understand how “adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)” link with chronic medical disease and mental health challenges.
Firearms have become a true public health crisis. We can do better. We need common sense gun safety legislation that protect children from gun violence. States with universal background checks and waiting periods have lower suicide rates compared to states without such laws. States that restrict assault weapons have the lowest per capita homicide rates. Laws mandating trigger locks and gun safes restrict unwanted access to firearms. We also need funding for better mental health programs to identify, treat and follow children and adults at risk who should not be handling firearms.
We understand and respect the many strong views on firearm use and ownership. We ask that we address firearms the same way we address other public health issues, such as automobile safety. We don’t hand the keys to a vehicle – inspected and loaded with safety features – to a child until he or she is properly supervised, trained, licensed and reaches a certain age. We ask for the same approach with firearms.
Enough. We say enough. Our children deserve better.
Dennis Z. Kuo, M.D. is division chief of general pediatrics at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Services. Gale R. Burstein, M.D., is Erie County Health Commissioner. Both are pediatricians.