California Forum

Everyone cares about mass shootings. But what about the 2,400 or so kids who take their own lives with guns each year?

Nearly half of adolescent suicides are committed with firearms. Here, students embrace, sobbing, after a 15 year old armed with an assault rifle, a handgun and several magazines of ammunition killed himself and a classmate in 2014 at a high school east of Portland. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Nearly half of adolescent suicides are committed with firearms. Here, students embrace, sobbing, after a 15 year old armed with an assault rifle, a handgun and several magazines of ammunition killed himself and a classmate in 2014 at a high school east of Portland. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) AP

I don’t want to tell you about Las Vegas. I don’t want to tell you about Sandy Hook, or Orlando, or San Bernardino, or Aurora, or Charleston – because I know that every day, we carry their weight in each painful detail that emerges, and in each history that dooms itself to repeat.

Instead, I want to tell you about keeping our children and teens alive. I want to tell you about a 12-year-old boy with a bright smile and a sharp, sarcastic brand of humor, whom I recently cared for in the hospital as a pediatrician. He is transgender and suffers from severe depression, and has attempted suicide three times in the last six months. None of these attempts involved a firearm, and miraculously, he survived.

I am faced with the haunting truth that however much I may counsel families on keeping their weapons safely locked and stowed, accidents will happen.

For thousands of young people in the United States, this is not the case. According to the most recent data from the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2015 suicide was the second leading cause of death in adolescents 15-24 years of age (claiming 5,491 lives), and the third leading cause of death in children aged 10-14.

Of fatal adolescent suicides in the United States, firearms – used nearly half the time, in about 45 percent of cases – remain the most common method. And in a case-control study of teen suicide, guns were twice as likely to be present in the homes of victims than in the homes of teens who made uncompleted attempts. The numbers speak for themselves, but what are we to do?

A wealth of evidence over the past 15 years supports the fact that gun safety education can only go so far in preventing firearm-related injury and death in children. As a child neurologist in training, I can attest to the underdeveloped executive pathways in the brain that lead children to, quite literally, pull the trigger, despite knowing well that guns are dangerous and scary machines.

At the clinic where I work, we include questions about access to firearms in our safety questionnaires – but I am faced with the haunting truth that however much I may counsel families on keeping their weapons safely locked and stowed, accidents will happen. The onus is upon us to protect our children, on a much larger scale than their pediatrician’s office.

I am a physician by training, but it does not take a career in politics to recognize that our current policies are flawed. I urge you to contact your members of Congress to prevent even more dangerous policy from being enacted – including HR 38, which would allow concealed carry laws to apply across state lines, no matter how lenient the standards.

Please join the American Academy of Pediatrics in supporting common-sense firearm legislation, including stronger background checks and regulation of assault weapons.

If not about Charleston, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook, or Las Vegas – if not about the fact that the simple act of entering a crowded movie theater or concert has the potential to send chills of fear up one’s spine – I still want to keep this conversation going. It’s not only about mass tragedies and public safety, but about the most vulnerable members of our families who cannot protect themselves from firearm injury.

Let’s continue this dialogue – if not for us, then for the children whose lives are put at risk by our firearms policies every day.

Madeline Schwarz, M.D., is a resident pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. She can be reached at maschwarz@mail.cho.org.

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