Dr. Behrens and Dr. Gambill commentary: It’s way past time for sensible gun laws
Summary: We as a society, across political and geographical differences, together must demand better. We have to elect officials who will pass gun safety laws that make a difference. We have to donate to and support organizations that research gun violence and mental health. ... We can turn the tide, but it takes all of us standing together across our differences, finding common ground, to do what is in the best interest of kids.
Every day when we go to work in a children’s hospital, we know that today could be the day. The day when our community is in the news, and we are called to the Emergency Department to assist in caring for victims of a school shooting.
We work more than 1,000 miles from each other, in communities that differ politically and demographically, and yet we share the same, very real fears. Just three weeks ago, we wept with the nation when 19 children and two of their teachers were slaughtered in Uvalde, Texas, torn apart by an assault rifle that was reportedly purchased legally online by an 18-year-old and picked up at a local gun store.
Now, as we dry our tears and reflect on what to do next, we stand together, in separate parts of the country, to demand better for our children and ourselves.
In 2020, for the first time, firearm violence overtook motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death of children ages 1-19 in the United States. Because of their horrific nature, mass tragedies spark conversations in ways that everyday tragedies do not. As pediatricians who care for firearm violence victims in the hospital, we know that the horror in Uvalde bears out in smaller, individual acts of violence against children every single day in every corner of the country.
We will continue to have conversations in the coming weeks about why our country allows children to be murdered in the places in which they are supposed to be safe. Why our country has the weakest gun laws and the most guns among comparable nations.
We will not have as many conversations about the subsequent devastation and mental health repercussions on children that this exposure to violence brings. Those effects start in the children who survived the attack in Uvalde, but will spread out to their families and friends, their loved ones and community. We are already facing a national child and adolescent mental health emergency. Exposure to violence, either from a single traumatic event or from repeated community exposure, can have permanent effects on the physical and mental health of children. As some elected officials try to focus attention on having a greater security presence in schools and more active shooter drills, we also won’t talk enough about the increased stress and fears these actions bring to children.
We will also not talk enough about the fact that the burden of firearm violence is carried disproportionately by children. The burden is heaviest for Black children and children who suffer from poverty. These are also communities that are most affected by systemic racism and policies designed to promote inequities that permeate our society. Anything that we do to address gun violence must also address these root causes of disparity.
Sometimes it feels that we are not making progress, that nothing we do will stem the tide. As physicians and scientists, we know that gun violence is a public health crisis and that public health measures, when applied effectively, will make everyone safer. We have done it before. Safe sleep programs for infants, drowning prevention techniques for children, safety equipment such as helmets for riding bikes, car seat requirements for young children, and smoking cessation programs are all examples of life-saving public health interventions.
We know that most gun owners are responsible and want to protect children. We know that 86% of Americans think that gun violence is a moderately to very big problem in our country. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 92% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans support background checks for private gun sales. We need national policies that reflect these facts.
On the sixth anniversary of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a group of 10 Democratic and 10 Republican senators released a statement on a bipartisan framework for gun safety legislation. As pediatricians, we applaud this promising news.
While this is a framework agreement, it could mark the most significant movement from the federal government on gun safety in 30 years. It includes funding for states to enact so-called red flag laws to allow a judge to temporarily remove firearms from those deemed a threat to themselves or others, money for mental health support, enhanced background checks to give authorities time to review the records of prospective gun buyers under age 21, and a provision that would extend to dating partners a ban on domestic abusers having guns.
It won’t solve all the problems, of course, but it’s a start.
We have powerful stories and a growing body of evidence to highlight the effects of gun violence on children. Our senators must hear from us how important this is to the physical and mental health and well-being of children in our country.
We must invest in education and research into effective gun safety research and translate the findings into national public policy and laws.
We as a society, across political and geographical differences, together must demand better. We have to elect officials who will pass gun safety laws that make a difference. We have to donate to and support organizations that research gun violence and mental health.
We can turn the tide, but it takes all of us standing together across our differences, finding common ground, to do what is in the best interest of kids.
Dr. Deanna Behrens is a pediatrician who specializes in pediatric critical care in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Lauren Gambill is a hospital-based pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and the mother of two young children.
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