Opinion

Gun violence kills and injures thousands of children every year. Here’s a solution

‘Firearms are part of a health problem.’ UC Davis ER doctor on role of physicians in gun discussion

Noted gun violence expert Dr. Garen Wintemute talks about why gun ownership is a medical issue that doctors need to discuss with patients on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. The UC Davis emergency room doctor also has good news for Californians on the issue.
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Noted gun violence expert Dr. Garen Wintemute talks about why gun ownership is a medical issue that doctors need to discuss with patients on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. The UC Davis emergency room doctor also has good news for Californians on the issue.

We’re pediatricians. We usually talk about vaccinations, the growth and development of your child and how to keep your child safe from preventable harms. When a group of us gathered recently to discuss what we could do about the scourge of the gun violence epidemic on children’s health, the conversation was quite different.

Several of us recalled being at the bedside as surgeons ripped open a child’s chest to directly and methodically massage the heart in an often futile attempt to bring them back from the dead after a bullet had pierced their chest. Only one of these children survived.

One pediatrician recounted how her large hospital in Los Angeles hosted military personnel to gain experience treating gunshot wounds because gun violence there was akin to a war zone.

Another provider described with heartbreaking detail resuscitating a toddler who had picked up an unlocked gun in her home and accidentally fired it into her skull with tragic consequence.

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Still another pediatrician told of the 8-year-old boy who hadn’t survived his stepfather’s rage-fueled attack on himself and his mother. His known history of domestic violence should have prevented gun ownership through a background check.

Many of us had worked with families in our clinics who had lost sons or daughters to suicide by gun. Suicide represents two thirds of all gun deaths in this country. These are single impulsive acts in the depths of treatable darkness, made irreversible by the lethality and finality of gunshots.

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Unspoken, but understood in all of our stories, was the over-representation of boys as the victims. Due to norms of toxic masculinity, more than 80 percent of gun violence deaths among children are boys, with communities of color being the hardest hit.

Each of us had not just one but multiple stories about the impact of gun violence on our communities.

As pediatricians, we know that unintentional gun-related injury, suicide and homicide are among the leading causes of death for our young patients. On average, nearly 20 U.S. children are injured or killed by guns every day.

We are hopeful that the needle is finally beginning to move on this important public health issue for our patients and communities.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill called the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019. This is now up for a vote in the Senate as the Background Check Expansion Act. This bill expands background checks to all gun sales, including those sold at gun shows and online. Although several states have passed laws closing the loophole for private sales, federal action would standardize these protections across the country.

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A national survey showed that nearly all (96.1 percent) offenders who were legally prohibited from buying firearms, but later incarcerated for a firearm-related crime, obtained their guns through private sales. Gun-related deaths are projected to be more than halved through universal background checks in this country. We will continue pressing our senators to vote on this bill.

We also urgently need public health and policy research to better understand the factors contributing to gun violence and which policies will most effectively mitigate its costs. The House Appropriations Committee has advanced $50 million for the CDC and NIH to do this. We urge the Senate to bring this funding bill across the finish line.

The gun violence epidemic continues to threaten the health of an entire generation of children. Common sense actions like universal background checks and increased research funding are first and important steps in meaningful action to protect our children and our communities from the scourge of gun violence.

Lisa Patel, MD, and Devika Bhushan, MD, are Fellows of the American Academy of Pediatrics and pediatricians at Stanford University. Views expressed are their own.

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