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Gun Violence Is Killing More Kids in the U.S. Than COVID-19. When Will We Start Treating It Like a Public Health Issue?

5 minute read
Chethan Sathya is a pediatric surgeon at Northwell Health’s Cohen Children’s Medical Center, and the Director of Northwell Health’s Gun Violence Prevention Center.

As millions of American children celebrated July 4 by viewing fireworks and having their imaginations sparked for a brighter future – at least six of our nation’s children were shot and killed by stray bullets, including 7-year-old Natalia Wallace, who was shot in the forehead as she played in her grandmother’s yard. This past Sunday, 1-year-old Davell Gardner Jr. was shot and killed in New York City while sitting in his stroller at a family cookout. Day in and day out, we justifiably discuss COVID-19 and the risks of reopening schools for our children, but we can’t even seem to guarantee that our children won’t be shot and killed while playing with friends or sleeping soundly in their beds.

Unfortunately, similar to the politicization of COVID-19, we continue to make gun violence a political issue rather than a public health one, which if we have learned anything from this current pandemic, portends a dire outlook for the future.

Nowadays, the chances that your child will die from COVID-19 remains a real but very low threat; however, in many parts of the country, the threat of being killed by a firearm is a much bigger concern. And the spike in gun violence that we witnessed this month goes far beyond kids, with 65 people shot in New York City over that weekend and 87 people shot in Chicago, not to mention shocking numbers of firearm homicides countrywide. These grim statistics come as a stark reminder, as if another reminder were needed, that gun violence remains our nation’s most dire and most frequently ignored public health epidemic. We can’t afford to ignore it any longer.

Because gun violence has become such a political issue, despite our best efforts, the narrative has also become heavily skewed. We amplify voices of the minority of gun owners who say that this is a Second Amendment issue, which it is not, but we rarely hear viewpoints from the folks who actually live in communities affected by gun violence. We must lift up the voices of those who are most affected. The vast majority of Americans support measures to enhance gun safety and reduce gun violence and want to keep their loved ones and communities safe. Let’s not lose sight of that. If we continue to politicize gun violence, similarly to the politicization of COVID-19, masks, and school reopenings, those in disparate communities with high levels of gun violence will continue to bear the brunt of the aftermath.

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We in health care are tired of pulling bullets out of children and breaking bad news to parents. We are exhausted from COVID-19—and the fact that there is no relief in sight with respect to gun violence is disheartening and breeds a sense of futility. Gun violence was an epidemic decades ago: now it is endemic, made worse by the economic insecurity and ongoing lockdowns spurred by COVID-19, and disproportionately targeting underprivileged Americans, most of them people of color.

With gun sales soaring to unprecedented heights, COVID-19 disrupting every facet of our lives, and our economy facing one of its biggest challenges to date, it’s very likely that the number of Americans killed by gun violence will continue to rise. Commonsense gun-safety legislation is critical, but only a small piece of the solution. New York and Chicago, for example, both already have some of the nation’s toughest restrictions in place yet continue to experience surges in gun violence. What we need right now is a complete overhaul of the way we approach the gun debate. And we can begin by making sure we’re having informed and consistent conversations about this sensitive and divisive subject. We in the health care sector have a responsibility to drive this conservation forward.

It is our duty to change the public discourse around guns and focus on this as a public health issue. Similar to the tobacco debate decades ago, where it was taboo for doctors to ask about smoking, we must shift the paradigm and view gun-violence prevention as part of the routine health care we deliver. As public-opinion surveys constantly show, most Americans support doctors counseling about gun safety and aren’t offended by these questions.

And like the now politicized issue of COVID-19 and masks, there is no interest among public health experts to infringe on anyone’s rights when discussing gun-violence prevention, but rather simply the desire to improve the health of our communities. Let us, then, gain some perspective from the pitfalls of politicizing public health issues like COVID-19 and not continue to make the same mistake with gun violence. Let’s do the work of studying the causes of—and potential cures for—our gun problem. The lives of our children depend on it.

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