When 7,000 pairs of children’s shoes were placed on the Capitol lawn in Washington in March, to remember the victims of gun violence since Sandy Hook, I looked down at the seemingly endless pairs and tried to pick out ones that best represented kids I have seen die.
I looked for the smallest pair of shoes I could find. These would be for the child who was shot while in her mother’s womb, suffering irreversible brain damage before she had a chance to live.
I looked for the shoes of a toddler. These would be for the two-year-old I had cared for who was caught in a gang cross-fire.
I looked for the sneakers of a teenager. These would be for a teenager I tried to save who shot himself after a struggle with depression.
In the decade that I have been a pediatrician, first in Miami and St. Louis and now in a Chicago-area hospital intensive care unit, I have been witness to countless tragedies: children with cancer, children with overwhelming infections, children with major trauma. I am affected by them all, but there is a special heartache that I feel when taking care of a child who had a preventable death.
Gun violence in the United States has reached the level of a public health epidemic. Every year, 1,300 children are killed by gun violence, which is the third leading cause of death in the pediatric population. About half of these are homicides, and another 40 percent are suicides.
Teenage suicide attempts with a firearm have an almost 90 percent fatality rate. In fact, guns are so effective that I do not see these kids that often, because they do not survive to make it to the ICU. Despite this, parents of teens with mental health illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder are no more likely to safely store guns than any other parent.
For every other leading cause of morbidity and mortality, there is an abundance of research into how to prevent and break the cycle of the disease process. There are proven successes in taking a public health approach, such as the successful campaigns to decrease auto accidents, to virtually eradicate infectious diseases like polio, and to decrease the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome.
By tracking cases, evaluating root causes, filling gaps in research, working with legislators on policy solutions, and developing public education campaigns, we also should be able to substantially decrease childhood deaths and disabilities due to gun violence.
A comprehensive, well-funded public health approach to gun violence will save children’s lives, and I applaud recent bipartisan efforts to allow this to happen. I am less heartened, though, by failures on the state and federal level to pass sensible laws for gun safety and gun violence prevention.
Illinois has the best rating in the Midwest from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, yet our state hasn’t passed any significant gun safety laws in two years. I was greatly disappointed last year by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of the Gun Dealer Licensing Act, and by the failure of the Illinois House to override the governor’s veto, resulting in the bill’s death.
However, as a member of the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, I will continue to advocate for comprehensive gun safety laws that would require stronger background checks, ban assault weapons and bump stocks, and encourage safe firearm storage.
I am one of the few people in the world who would be thrilled if the need for my services were eliminated. It is possible, with funding for research and sensible gun violence prevention laws, that this could happen when it comes to guns and children.
I stand with the other 66,000 members of the American Academy of Pediatrics in advocating for all issues that affect children’s health. Children deserve to feel safe where they live, learn and play.
Dr. Deanna Behrens is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as a member of the Illinois Chapter of the academy.
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