I’m a pediatrician. America must do something about the deadly threat of guns to kids.

Children die all of the time from firearms, and each of these deaths is a tragedy. Yet it is still considered controversial among some to talk about laws that might keep our children safer.

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Gun Control Advocates Protest Outside NRA Convention In Texas

Gun control advocates confront a man at the National Rifle Association annual convention on May 28 in Houston, Texas.

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Nineteen lost children. Two lost teachers. I was walking into my shift at a children’s hospital when a friend texted me this news about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.

I see more dead children than most people. I know that sounds harsh, but I do. I work in a pediatric intensive care unit, and we see children die from all sorts of causes: cancer, infection, child abuse, car accidents, heart issues. I pray for all of the kids in my care every day, and every death affects me, even after 10 years on this job.

It is always gut-wrenching, but it hits me the hardest when a death is preventable.

In the coming weeks, we will hear a lot about gun control and firearms safety laws. These are hard, important and necessary conversations. Firearms violence is the leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 17 in Illinois, and a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that for the first time, gun deaths among children overtook deaths due to motor vehicle accidents.

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Some of these children are lost to suicide, some to homicide, and some are lost in preventable accidents in which a child used a firearm that they should never have been able to access. Even those children who survive suffer trauma. Of the children who are admitted to the pediatric ICU with firearms injuries, only 30% have a good overall performance outcome at discharge.

Children die all of the time from firearms, and each of these deaths is a tragedy. Yet it is still considered controversial among some to talk about laws that might keep our children safer.

In addition to the epidemic of firearms violence, theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health last year. Between 2007 and 2018, there was a 60% increase in suicide in children and adolescents in the United States. With the pandemic, suicide is likely to rise. And easy access to a firearm is one of the key risk factors for suicide completion, because guns are by far the most fatal method of self-harm. Yet research shows that parents with children who have mental health issues are not more likely to store guns safely than anyone else. 

Because gun violence is a public health crisis, we know that applying public health solutions is likely to decrease the burden of death and disability caused by firearms. I work in the pediatric ICU because I can help most of my patients. I am an optimist. I believe that most gun owners are responsible, compassionate individuals who are just as sickened by the deaths of 19 young children, just as sickened at the thought of any child dying, as I am.

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The Illinois General Assembly recentlypassed a bill to fund a public health education campaign to increase safe storage of firearms. I urge every parent who is a gun owner to make sure that firearms are stored safely, meaning locked and stored separately from ammunition. I urge parents to ask other parents if there are guns in the house before letting kids socialize, and to ask if they are stored safely if there are.

We need strong nationwide laws to prevent children getting access to guns, “red flag” laws to prevent those who are a danger to themselves or others from getting firearms, and laws banning automatic weapons. We also need to invest in improving mental health in children and adolescents.

Concerned citizens, including responsible gun owners, must call elected officials and demand that our nation do something about the deadliest threat to our children.

What happened in Uvalde and in Buffalo were not accidents. Nor are other firearms-related deaths that occur every day, but that most of us don’t hear about.

On May 24, I received a text that 19 children were killed in Texas. The next time, it might be a page for me to come in to help 19 children shot in Chicago.

It could happen anywhere, unless our nation takes steps to prevent it.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Deanna Behrens, M.D., is a pediatrician who specializes in pediatric critical care in Chicago.

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