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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  • John C. Key MD

    Regrettably, it is the “fears and ideologies” of the anti-gun crowd that is more likely to cause a lack of safety. Common sense should trump all and make it crystal clear that firearm bans will shackle only the responsible and law-abiding, not the criminal or mentally ill element.

  • goonerdoc

    Ah, gun control. A topic which is virtually impossible for anyone to discuss rationally and with a level head. Guaranteed to devolve into adolescent name calling within five minutes. I’ll make the popcorn.

    • buzzkillerjsmith

      No kidding.

      I would also like to have us discuss the pros and cons of various religions here. Maybe we could also invite some Viking and Packer fans to hash things out. Oh, I got, let’s have a big doctor versus NP cage fight!

    • Gibbon1

      I’ll discus this rationally. Most (75%) gun injuries and deaths are involve handguns. Most street crime that involves a firearm involves a handgun simply because they are concealable Do something about that. Ban firearms shorter than 32 inches and detachable magazines. Require an integral trigger lock on long rifles.

      There 85% of your problem solved. Is that going to happen. No, so everyone is blowing smoke.

      • Jess

        “There 85% of your problem solved.”

        Carrying concealed handguns is banned in Chicago. How’s that working out for them?

  • Tiredoc

    Your bloody shirt has dried up. You need a new one to wave around.

  • Ron Smith

    Hi, Claire.

    I’m sorry to respectfully disagree, but I feel strongly about a number of the things you wrote.

    I can very much tell the emotion and heartache that you experienced is significant. I also am brokenhearted about the loss of those children, but amy just as brokenhearted about the loss of any child, born or unborn, for any reason. I love children.

    It seems to me (and I may be wrong, please correct me) that you have yourself, no experience with guns or ammunition? Having grown up in rural Arkansas where some people had to hunt to add meat to their freezer for the next year, I have a different perspective.

    I personally have guns and I have a Georgia weapons permit. I was fingerprinted and screened and photographed and that photo id carries the same weight and proof of my identity as my drivers license.

    My Father, a Korean wartime veteran, still has his sharpshooter medal. He taught me everything there is to know about guns. My pistol is always loaded, though there is not a shell in the chamber. ALL guns should be considered loaded at all times.

    With that principle in mind, then, you need to think correctly about the term ‘assault’ weapons. ALL guns should be viewed as potential assault weapons.

    Its kind of like the difference between speech and hate speech. Who determines when speech becomes hateful? For most people the only appreciation for an ‘assault’ weapon is that it looks something like a military issued gun.

    I disagree that throwing more money at mental illness in any way will have any meaning effect on atrocities where guns are the means by which a perpetrator acts. But that is what social constructors do…spend money, and the more the better.

    In states where citizens have legitimate carry and conceal laws, the rates of similar gun violence goes down, not up. I recently went to do physicals for children who were attending the Special Olympics. I was very relieved when I got to the front office to see an ARMED deputy sheriff whose full-time job is to police and protect the students at the school. The mere presence of guns is a deterrent to perpetrators preying on helpless victims with guns. That’s because they are cowards.

    My son-in-law is a deputy sheriff in Georgia. He carries his weapon and his badge off duty at ALL times everywhere. That’s because everyone and every child is just as important to him as his own four children and his wife and his other loved ones. Are armed police can only stand between the citizens and the bad guys because they have guns. But they can’t be everywhere because we can’t afford to hire enough of them.

    As to the AAP, lets please leave this non-representative organization out of the discussion. In my opinion, they are a non-entity here akin to the AARP and similar organizations who cut deals with power brokers for their own survival and self-interests.

    Action to save children from future atrocities will require something more than knee-jerk emotional responses like banning any or even all weapons.

    You cannot legislate a change in a person’s heart. People are going to do what they really want to do.

    As long as we have a free will, people will freely do bad things to other people. The only sure way to stop violence is make all people everywhere just go away. No people…no violence.


    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

  • VKA

    Dr. McCarthy,

    MS2 here. I sympathize with your feelings, however I question your logic. You cite the Sandy Hook shootings. Yet, it is highly unlikely that the three gun control points you suggest would have stopped those shootings.

    A) Assault Weapons Ban. The fact is that if Adam Lanza had used the pistol he also was carrying, he may have killed more children. The bullets for handguns are lighter, and thus it is easier to carry more of them. A handgun and a rifle are not appreciably different in lethality at close ranges against unarmored targets (such as innocent children). Indeed, the deadliest massacre on US soil was committed with handguns alone (Virginia Tech).

    B) Background Checks. I actually have no problem with universal background checks, but they would not have stopped the massacre. Adam Lanza’s mother had purchased the weapon, and they were stolen from her. Similarly, many (though not all) massacres are committed by individuals with no contact with the system prior to the incident in question. If you want to register everyone who has ever had mental health treatment on a gun-ban list, then I would posit that the “stigma” you hope to reduce would instead go through the roof.

    C) High-cap magazines. This is a misnomer- normal magazines are being mis-identified as “high-cap”. But regardless of the semantics, high-cap magazines would not have made a difference- if you are restricted to 10 rounds, you just carry twice as many magazines (or buy normal magazines illegally over the internet). This is especially easy with a handgun- which is what people will use should assault rifles be banned.

    Your other two points may have some success, but who knows.

    I would posit instead that they way to stop these massacres was shown in Colorado- an armed deputy present in the school caused the shooter to kill himself before taking more than 1 life. One wonders how many more would have died had the shooter not been confronted. A google or wikipedia search finds numerous (unreported) instances in which a massacre was prevented by armed bystanders or off-duty officers. (


  • NormRx

    If you would like to read a well sourced article on gun ownership and the myths associated with it, check out the article at the link. This was published several years ago in The Harvard Journal of law and public policy. I do realize that Harvard is a bastion of conservative thought, but the article is quite interesting.

  • MentalPatient

    I find it disturbing that there are endless articles about horrific gun violence and inevitably these articles propose more mental health treatment (many articles also suggest taking away more civil rights, from mental patients like me, even though I’ve never done anything wrong in my life) then the articles add “let’s reduce stigma, too!” Huh? How do you suggest doing that when the only reason anyone’s wanting to fund this care is because all of us mental patients are potential crazed killers? Seems like most every article about mental health in the media is in the context of shootings. I’m very sorry I ever got labeled. All these articles make stigma wore.

    • Gibbon1

      You hot a point I like to make, most people who suffer from mental illness are underneath decent people, with empathy trying to go through life with a big monkey on their back. They don’t pose any danger to anyone. Quite the reverse. Further linking people with garden variety mental illness to horrific killers is cruel. Because it’s not like people with schizophrenia don’t watch the news or read what people say about them.

  • Eric Thompson

    You seem to fixate on ‘gun violence’. The USA has similarly high levels of violence through knives and many other devices. Much more than Europe and other areas on the planet. Is a death by knife or being beaten therefore OK?
    In general there is a high level of all kinds of violence across the USA. Guns, knives or whatever else are just the tools. A root cause of violence. Take care of violence and you probably fixed 90% of the issue.

  • Kendra McDow

    Hello Claire,

    Thank you for bringing attention to the AAP’s recommendations on preventing gun violence in our communities. As you stated, no child should die in vain. No child. The data on gun violence perpetuated against children is truly disturbing. According to the CDC, homicide is the 2nd leading cause of death of children between 10-24 yo. Of those deaths, almost 80% of these children were killed at the hands of a gun. I think the AAP recommendations, and continued advocacy from pediatricians are strongly needed. However, I do agree with one of the previous posters, in that in addition to the AAP recommendations, in order to truly tackle this issue we have to simultaneously get to the root cause of violence in our communities (eg. social isolation? economic inequality?).

    • Jess

      Since when are 24-year-old adults “children”?

      18-24 year old adult males commit, and are victim to, higher rates of gun violence than any other demographic. It seems pretty tricky to squash in this exceptionally violent young adult demographic into your special “for the chiiiiildren!” pleading.

  • Jess

    Gun violence in America is at near-record lows, despite the economy. It was much higher in the 80s when things were booming.

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