To the editor:
Call me naïve, call me idealistic but there is something in the anger, rage but most importantly the clarity of commitment among the students in Parkland, Florida that has me believing that their efforts may prove to be a tipping point for a grassroots movement to bring about some common sense gun legislation in the United States.
While the tragic and heartbreaking mass shootings that seem to be occurring with greater frequency understandably grab the undivided attention of the media and the public, it is important to understand that mass shootings (in schools or anywhere else) are not the source of even a majority of the gun-related deaths that occur in the U.S. It is a fact that of the 30,000 plus gun deaths that occur each year, approximately two thirds — more than 20,000 — are attributed to suicide.
In the wake of the 17 deaths and multiple injuries at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School by a clearly troubled young man with a lethal weapon, it is entirely appropriate that school officials in Alexandria revisit safety measures and security protocols to ensure that nothing has been overlooked and to examine what, if anything, they can learn from the shooting in Florida. With all the attention on school safety, however, we must not overlook the fact that many school- and pre-school age children will remain at greater risk of gun violence in their home than at school. That is because of the risk an estimated several thousand firearms, especially those that are unsecured, in the homes present to many of our children.
Gunshots are now the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in children, next only to car accidents. A recent study, based on 2012-2014 data, shows that, on average, 5,790 children in the United States receive treatment in hospital ERs each year for a gun-related injury, and almost 1,300 children die every year from gunfire. Estimates show that about 21 percent of the injuries and deaths are unintentional; of the remaining 79 percent intentional shootings, most were the result of suicides, homicides or domestic violence disputes, and not the consequence of a mass shooting.
National data points to almost one-third of children ages 1 to 17 years in the United States live in homes with at least one firearm, and of those households, about 43 percent contain one unlocked firearm. All in all, more than 2 million children live in homes with unsecured guns. Most children who died of unintentional gun injuries were shot by another child, most often while playing with a gun or showing it to a friend.
Suicides accounted for almost 40 percent of all intentional gun-related fatalities among children. Researchers, using Centers for Disease Control data, reported an alarming 60 percent increase in gun-related suicides among children between 2007 and 2014.
Mental health professionals point to suicide as an impulsive act. Many of those who attempt suicide, including teenagers, spend 10 minutes or less deliberating before the actual attempt. Interestingly, research shows that across all suicide attempts not involving a firearm, e.g. a drug overdose, less than 10 percent result in death. For gun suicides, however, about 90 percent end in death. It’s estimated that access to a household gun triples the risk of death by suicide.
Evidence is clear that the best way to lower the risk of unintentional injury or death to a child by a firearm or the risk of child suicide is by responsible storage of the firearm. And this means storing a gun locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition.
Studies show that parents who are counseled by their pediatricians are more likely to adopt responsible gun storage practices. A nationwide controlled trial found that patients who were counseled by their pediatricians about gun safety – and who were offered free firearm cable locks – were 22 percent more likely to report following the recommended gun storage practices six months later.
One other possible strategy for preventing and reducing intentional and unintentional gun-related deaths by our children would be to sponsor a gun buy-back program.
Recently, Alexandria launched an ambitious initiative called Vision Zero designed to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries in Alexandria by 2028. Its underpinnings are summarized in the program’s Action Plan: “Traffic-related injuries and fatalities pose a serious public health risk that cannot be tackled by one group or city department alone. Each year, an average of 37 people in Alexandria are killed or seriously injured while using the city’s streets. … The solution to this grave situation requires an intensive, collaborative effort ….”
Unfortunately, I could find no data on the number of children and residents of Alexandria who are killed or seriously injured each year as a result of gun violence, self-inflicted or otherwise. National data would suggest, however, that it’s not too far above or below the Vision Zero estimate of 37 killed or seriously injured annually due to traffic-related injuries. Vision Zero is an excellent model for the establishment of Vision Zero II – the elimination of all child gun-related deaths and serious injuries in the city by 2028. It should go without saying that our children deserve no less.
— Richard E. Merritt, member, Public Health Advisory Commission