A pediatrician talks about the new pandemic.
Last weekend, my 13-year-old son Will and I were eating breakfast at the kitchen island when he asked if he could go over to his friend’s house. That’s not necessarily something new, but at that moment, I realized I’d been so busy with work lately that we hadn’t had a chance to talk about something that we absolutely needed to discuss: gun safety.
“Hey Will,” I asked, “what would you do if you went to someone’s house and they took out their parent’s gun? What should you do?” He looked confused. “I don’t know… ask if it’s loaded?”
“No,” I insisted, “the first thing to do is to leave the situation and find an adult. You should assume all guns are loaded. Don’t ever touch a gun, even if you think it’s a toy, or your friend says it isn’t loaded. It could hurt you, or worse, kill you.”
The reality of living in America in 2023 is that these conversations — which might have seemed unnecessary or even absurd decades ago — are absolutely essential. Whether I’m talking to Will about gun safety or calming down my 11-year-old daughter, Zoey, when she’s in a panic over the possibility of a shooting at her school, firearms are a topic of conversation in our home. As they should be.
When I think about these recent conversations with my kids, I’m more scared, frustrated, and angry than ever before. I’m a mother of two, a neonatologist, and pediatrician, and I’ve seen firsthand how gun violence can take children’s lives. And while I’m thankful every day that my children haven’t been directly impacted by it yet, I know that they’re still at risk: Three million children in America are exposed to gun violence every year.
For those who are exposed but live, there’s an increased risk of substance abuse, depression and anxiety, difficulty in learning and school performance, and even increased risk of criminal activity in the future. I live in Massachusetts, which ranks among the strongest states in gun safety laws, but for the better part of my life, I lived in Texas and Florida, where gun-safety laws are notoriously weak. In 2021, Texas laws were changed to officially allow anyone to carry a concealed gun in public — without a permit or background check.
I’m outraged and disappointed that we can’t seem to act quickly to put our kids — our most vulnerable and precious resource, and the very fabric of our future — first. And I no longer feel confident that I can reassure my kids that yes, we’re doing everything we can to ensure they’re safe. Not when access to military-style weapons is so easily accessible — and these weapons are being used to kill children across our country. On Monday, three children similar in age to Will and Zoey died needlessly from gun violence in the hands of a school shooter in Nashville, TN. Like every other parent in our country, I’m sick of being afraid to do something that generations of mothers did without thinking: Send my own kids to school.
I ask myself so many questions: Why are guns so accessible in the U.S.? Why don’t we have laws in place to protect our children? Why can’t we get mental healthcare right? Why can’t we look at gun violence as a public health crisis, like COVID? Why can’t we educate and require gun owners on how to safely secure and store their guns? Why don’t all states have red flag laws in place when we know they decrease gun violence? Why can’t we do what’s right?
As of today, we’ve had 131 mass shootings this year in the U.S. Even more alarmingly, firearm deaths are now the leading cause of death in children and young adults in our country, with 13 children dying every day from guns. This statistic should make every single American pause.
Until the 1960s, unpreventable diseases were the leading cause of deaths in kids until motor-vehicle accidents surpassed them, even through the addition of seatbelts. And alarmingly, firearm violence in kids has been on a steady rise since 2014. Of all firearm deaths, 63 percent are the result of homicide, 37 percent are the result of suicide, and a small portion are due to unintentional/accidental shootings. What’s the number-one risk factor? Access to firearms — and as of today, 40 percent of US households with children have at least one firearm in the home. And in 15 percent of those households, firearms are loaded and unlocked in the house, putting a total of 4.6 million American children at risk.
I recognize that effecting change will take a multi-prong approach. I know that as with other life-threatening crises, there’s no magic pill that can cure us of this violent pandemic. However, we already know some of the critical tactics we can do to save more lives. So why aren’t we following through on them?
A recent Supreme Court decision (New York State vs. Bruen) in June 2022 is an example of the continued steps backward we seem to be taking. It determined that state laws cannot make decisions on where a person can and cannot carry firearms in public places; it was made on the grounds that the ability to carry firearms is a federal issue, not a state one. Up until this decision, the government did have the ability to regulate firearms in public spaces. (The same week, the Supreme Court also overturned Roe v Wade, leaving it up to states to decide.) We’re supposed to be the United States, and yet we’re rapidly becoming starkly divided states. And as a result, people are suffering.
When it comes to mass shootings, like the one in Tennessee this week (and for that matter, the ones happening every week across our country), the best way to stop them is to prevent the shooter from being able to buy guns of any kind, but at the very least not military-style assault weapons. These weapons are guns of mass destruction and war, and have no place in our communities. It’s also important to note that access to firearms is directly linked to firearm deaths: 82 percent of teen suicide deaths and 75 percent of school shootings use a gun from the home. To put it plainly, in states that have passed gun safety laws, there are fewer deaths due to firearm violence.
While gun-safety laws and advocacy are critical to changing the statistics and keeping our kids safe, there are practical things that each of us can do to help keep our kids safer. Part of my job as a pediatrician involves sharing vital information, so I wanted to share some ways to combat this wave of violence.
First of all, if you have them, learn how to safely store your guns. That means keeping them locked, unloaded, and stored separately from any ammunition. It may sound simple, but it’s the most important way to help prevent your kids from becoming victims of firearm violence.
Then, though it might be scary for them or difficult for you, talk to your kids about gun safety — early and often. Start with info tailored to their age and level of understanding, but do be honest and open with your children about the risks and dangers of guns and gun violence. Don’t worry too much about bringing it up, no matter how intimidating it might be: The odds are that the topic has already been on their mind.
Another proactive step is to teach children the importance of gun safety: Remind them to always assume a gun is loaded, never touch a gun, and immediately tell an adult if they find one. And reassure them that they won’t get in trouble for telling an adult.
Empower yourself to ask tough questions: Ask other parents about access to guns and gun storage at their house, before any playdates. I know this can feel awkward at first, but I promise it gets easier. And a little awkwardness is obviously worth your kids’ safety. Need help on what to say? The AAP’s #ASKingSavesKids campaign offers some solid scripts.
If Zoey’s having a playdate, I always ask the other child’s parent if there’s a gun in the home. If the answer is yes, I ask how it’s stored. And if it’s not locked with ammunition separately, I suggest moving the playdate to a park or the library. We’re our kids’ best advocates for ensuring their safety, so we can’t let them down.
Doctors and experts know about the additional risk factors in gun violence, and so should you: If someone in your home is going through a mental-health crisis, or is at risk of hurting themselves, you should absolutely remove firearms from the home. Or, at a minimum, securely store them.
I know that the right to bear arms is a politically controversial issue, but our kids have a right to safety that’s more important than politics. I also know that I have more questions than answers when it comes to gun ownership in our country. But if we don’t start asking “why,” then we can’t get to solutions — and it has to be a collaboration between both sides of the political aisle. They say that raising a child takes a village, but keeping a child safe takes a village, too.
Jennifer Arnold, MD, MSc is a physician and Program Director of Immersive Design Systems at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Special thanks to Dr. Lois Lee for her insights.