By Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Once upon a time, when life seemed to be much more straightforward, a visit to the pediatrician’s office consisted of basic questions about child development, what foods parents should be feeding, and some basic safety precautions. Most of you remember those visits.
Life has become more complex, as well as more dangerous for children. Did you know that last year 55 toddlers shot someone with a gun? Firearms-related deaths are one of the top three causes of death in American young people. In the most recent year that data are available, 2009, 7400 children under age 20 were hospitalized for injuries from firearms. The majority were unintentional assaults, 2000 were accidents, and 270 were suicide attempts.
While we are shocked when we hear of a report of a mass shooting, firearms-related incidents involving children are occurring in every city every day—20 times a day on average.
While we have made great strides in providing a safe environment for children from automobile safety to clean air and water, we have failed children with respect to our public health interventions for firearms safety. Guns are the ONLY consumer products manufactured in the United States that are not subject to Federal health and safety regulation. Your child’s teddy bear has gone through a more rigorous evaluation than any handgun.
There are a number of reasons for this failure, but they all boil down to our collective refusal to recognize that firearms pose a threat to public health. First, to be effective public health requires data, yet as a result of Congressional action, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) has been prohibited from collecting data on firearms-related injuries and deaths, despite their obviously large numbers. Second, we are not enacting simple legislation that could reduce risks to children without limiting the ability of adults to obtain a firearm. For example, we could require manufacturers to increase the pressure required to fire a handgun. This might reduce the likelihood that a toddler who finds a gun is able to pull the trigger to discharge the weapon. States also could enact laws to require safe storage of firearms if children are present in a home. Illinois has done so. Third, we should repeal a little-known provision in the Affordable Care Act that prohibits physicians from documenting patients’ answers to questions about guns. While gun rights advocates claim the intent is to prevent the Federal government from keeping a database of gun owners, the effect is to essentially muzzle physicians from asking about firearms safety. And in Florida the courts have upheld a law that prevents pediatricians from asking even asking parents about guns or counseling them about firearms safety.
President Obama’s executive action to require background checks for sales at gun shows is an important step in the limitation of illegal gun sales, however another important step is the recognition of injuries caused by firearms as a public health issue. That will lead to a better understanding of the impact of firearms on children help ensure our children’s safety.