After Sandy Hook: Let’s not let these children die in vain

I still can’t think about the Sandy Hook shooting without starting to cry.

It hit me really hard, because when it happened, I had a first-grader whose classroom was right off the main lobby of his public elementary school. If a shooter like Adam Lanza ever stormed into his school, Liam wouldn’t have a chance.

I can’t imagine life without Liam. If he were to die, I can’t imagine how I would endure the pain — and yet the Newtown parents have done so, day after day. And now they have to endure the anniversary of their children’s brutal, unnecessary death. We should be able to say something meaningful to those parents; we should be able to show them how the deaths of their children moved us to action.

As Dr. McInerny, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), said: “Every child who dies due to gun violence is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister.” Every day, around seven children are killed by firearms.  Gun injuries are the second leading cause of death in our youth — they kill twice as many as cancer and fifteen times as many as infections. We owe something to these children — and their devastated families.”

There was certainly a lot of talk about action after the Newtown shooting: everything from banning assault rifles to using assault rifles to protect schools.  And there has been some action. There are new gun safety laws in six states — but in most of those states, legal challenges have been mounted.

This isn’t about taking away the right to own and responsibly use a gun — and yet, somehow efforts to keep children safe end up being seen that way. I firmly believe that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible and know how to keep everyone around them safe from their guns. But a gun is different from most possessions: in the wrong hands, or used in the wrong way, it can cause incredible destruction.

Here’s what the AAP recommends:

  • Stronger gun laws, including an effective assault weapons ban (it’s just not necessary for the average citizen to own one), mandatory background checks on all firearm purchases (there are way too many loopholes) and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. (Again: there’s no reason for the average citizen to own one).
  • Research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. We know that mental health problems can lead to gun violence, but most people with mental health problems don’t go on shooting rampages. We need to understand better the signs that someone with mental health problems — or anyone — may become violent. We need to understand how we can intervene — and what really works when it comes to preventing gun violence, as opposed to what we think might work.
  • Strengthening the quality of mental health care and access to services for children. Actually, we need better care and access for everyone — which will cost us money, and involve fighting the stigma that can come with getting mental health care. But we need to make it happen.

While we are arguing over laws, there are steps all of us can take to keep our children safe. We can keep guns locked up, with ammunition locked separately. We can teach kids to be safe around guns. When our children go to other people’s homes, we can ask those parents if they have a gun — and if so, how they store it.

Please: let’s not let these children have died in vain. Let’s not let our fears and ideologies get in the way of keeping our children safe. Let’s concentrate on what binds us instead of what separates us.

If anything should bind us, it’s saving the lives of children.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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