A few years ago, I was working in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, when I admitted a 5-year-old boy who had found his father's loaded gun on the kitchen counter, picked it up and shot himself in the head.
For the month that I cared for him, he was mostly comatose and intubated, and a few days into his hospitalization, his heart started failing so we had to connect him to a machine that acted as an artificial heart, in a process called Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO). At this point in his care he was so covered in tubes and other medical devices that it was difficult to even see his small body in the hospital bed underneath it all, and even more difficult to imagine him as the young boy in the pictures around his bed who was playing soccer, hiking and laughing with his family.
Though it has been highly politicized, gun violence is a public-health issue that demands public and government action. Here are the facts:
Among U.S. adolescents 15-19 years old, gun homicides are the second leading cause of death, gun suicides are the third, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014, researchers for the peer-reviewed medical journal Pediatrics published a study showing about 3,000 children die of gun violence each year, and over 7,000 children are hospitalized, half of whom will be discharged with a disability. Gun violence costs the U.S. over $17 billion per year, according to recent studies in peer-reviewed public-health journals. Today, on average, seven children will wake up ready for a normal day, and be shot and killed.
Despite these stark statistics, many Americans keep guns in their home, often times in the belief that doing so makes them safer. The evidence paints a different picture. Guns in the home increase the risk of homicide 300 percent and suicide by 500 percent, and are 22 times more likely to be used in domestic homicide, suicide or an unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense, as reported by the New England Journal of Medicine. Carrying a gun during an assault increases the risk of being shot by 400 percent, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health.
The Journal of the American Medical Association found that the risk for unintentional injury and suicide in children is reduced by 73 percent when guns are kept locked, and by 70 percent when they are kept unloaded. But, unfortunately, a 2006 study by the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that less than 50 percent of gun-owning parents store all of their guns safely, and 8.3 percent of gun-owning parents store at least one gun unlocked and loaded. Although a 1999 study by Pediatrics found 75 percent of parents think their children would not touch a gun, this myth was shattered by the journal's terrifying 2001 study, "Seeing is Believing," in which a majority of children handled a gun they found in a room, and 50 percent of them pulled the trigger.
Fortunately, stricter gun laws can reduce firearm-related deaths, three separate leading journals have found in 2015 and 2016 cross-sectional and multi-state studies. Laws that specifically limit children's access to guns reduce deaths from unintentional shootings by as much as 23 percent and suicides by as much as 8.3 percent, according to studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and a medical journal called Trauma. When we regulate guns, our children are safer.
Right now, the Oregon Legislature is considering Senate Bill 978, which would require Oregon gun owners to safely store and transfer their guns. The science shows clearly that this type of legislation will save children's lives. Please reach out to your legislators and urge them to support safe gun-storage legislation. You can find their contact information at oregonlegislature.gov.
Happy Valley resident Dr. Ryan Hassan is a pediatrician practicing in Clackamas County.
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