Nearly 10 years after 20 first-graders and six staff members were killed during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the gun manufacturer finally was held liable — not for the shootings but for its marketing tactics.
As the $73 million settlement was announced in February, the unbearable pain was visible in the faces and voices of the parents whose children will never return home, never grow up. A few moments of inexplicable violence left them, their communities and, at the time, the entire country bereft.
Gun violence is so rampant in America that nearly all of us have been touched by it directly or indirectly. Almost all pediatricians have cared for children who have been injured by a gun or witnessed or lost a loved one to gun violence. This is especially true of emergency medicine, surgical, intensivist and hospitalist pediatricians, but primary care pediatricians also walk with grief-stricken families to whom we can offer little besides the comfort of our presence.
How do we make sense of the inexplicable? As parents of a child killed in the shooting said after the Remington settlement, “Our loss is irreversible, and in that sense this outcome is neither redemptive nor restorative.”
As a resident, I took care of five children injured by guns left loaded and unlocked under a bed or in a drawer. Curiosity ended in one child dead, one paralyzed from the waist down, three with serious injuries and five families devastated. I also cared for a teen who came to the emergency department after a gang fight for treatment of wounds and a sexually transmitted infection. He said he didn't practice sexual safety (or any type of safety) because he didn't expect to live past age 20.
These were not my first encounters with gun violence. Two of my peers died by suicide using a firearm when I was a teen. My boss was shot and killed at work when I was 20. And my brother’s wonderful, kind friend was murdered in our house by his irate cousin.
Sadly, firearm-related deaths remain a leading cause of mortality in U.S. children. Still, our leaders have not found it in their hearts or minds to enact reasonable, lifesaving, injury-preventing gun legislation.
The story of gun violence can get lost during a pandemic, war and political strife. But we must not lose sight of what has become a national crisis. Children depend on us to stand up for their health and safety. The AAP has not shrunk from this task.
The Academy published its first policy statement on firearms in 1992 and has revised and reinforced it twice since. We continue to push for stronger gun laws to protect children and teens, including universal background checks, assault weapon bans and responsible gun ownership — starting with securing firearms properly in homes. We encourage gun owners to take gun safety courses. And we continue to state the truth supported by data: The safest home is a home without guns.
Perhaps these changes would have prevented the Sandy Hook shooting and the other school shootings that followed. They also might have prevented some accidental shootings, deaths by suicide and reduced gun violence in our cities.
The AAP has developed new tools to help pediatricians counsel families on how to prevent unintended access to weapons. Community Access to Child Health grant projects that focus on preventing and protecting children from gun violence are active in Atlanta, Baltimore, the Bronx, Columbus, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City. And with the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, we recently launched a national coalition of medical, public health and research organizations to educate policymakers about the need to continue and expand investments at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health on how to prevent firearm-related injuries and deaths.
We will keep fighting for sensible, data-driven legislation so every child can go to school and return home safely, so teens suffering despair do not have ready means to end their lives, so our cities are safer, so people suffering from mental illness have less access to firearms, so no parent loses a child in the split second it takes to discharge a firearm.