Another mass shooting affecting children in school. The large number of dead and wounded attracts headlines and the usual prayers, platitudes and condolences from politicians. Yet each day in the U.S., eight children are killed by guns — either by homicide, suicide or accident — amounting to more than 3,000 killed each year, and many thousands more wounded and traumatized. Getting killed by guns is the second-leading cause of death in children and adolescents in the U.S. (Motor vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of teenage deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
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It is helpful to think of the problem of gun violence as a public health issue. If a new illness developed which affected so many children each year, it would be considered an epidemic and substantial resources devoted to medical science to solve it. Let’s put this problem in the context of international epidemiological data. In the U.S., 3.6 people per 100,000 are killed annually by gun violence. This rate is 7.2 times more than in Canada, 18 times more than Sweden, 36 times more than Germany, 90 times more than the U.K., and 360 times more than in Japan.
Mass shootings account for a very small percentage of those killed by guns. When this occurs, a common explanation is that the perpetrator is mentally ill. In fact, the percentage of homicide deaths attributable to mentally ill people is very small, less than 4 percent. But framing the issue of gun violence as a mental health issue distracts us from the more fundamental issue accounting for this public health epidemic: the culture of guns and violence in the U.S., with easy access to firearms.
Research indicates that excessive exposure to gun violence through movies, TV and video games increases the chances of children behaving violently toward others. Children are witnesses to acts of gun violence, including murders, thousands of times over the course of their development, possibly numbing or desensitizing them to killing. In some popular video games, children can act virtually as perpetrators of gun violence. They may come to accept violence as a way to resolve conflict, imitating what they see in media and identifying with violent characters. Kids are also traumatized by witnessing real gun violence in their communities, as we all unfortunately have seen only days ago in Parkland. When children have access to guns — especially semiautomatic killing machines — the results are often tragic.
From a public health perspective, one solution is obvious: limiting access to guns. What accounts for the differences in the international rates of gun deaths? Other modern countries do not allow their citizens access to handguns, semiautomatic assault weapons, and high-capacity magazines. Are the rates of mental illness different in these countries from the U.S.? The data indicate this is not the case; therefore, the differences are most likely attributable to their reasonable and common-sense gun laws.
Let us not become inured to this state of affairs and accept the status quo. If we accept the position that this is a mental health issue, then we would increase mental health screening, provide more resources for treatment, and restrict gun ownership for those identified as mentally ill. Having more mental health screening and treatment is a real need, but not necessarily in the context of gun violence. Restricting gun ownership to those not identified as mentally ill would not be easy to accomplish, as most individuals identified as mentally ill are not violent, and most people who kill others are not identified as mentally ill.
Another approach is to devote more resources to keeping schools safe, by using more metal detectors, increasing the number of police or security guards at school, and arming classroom teachers. Is this the society we want for our children?
Now is the time for a real discussion on gun control. Now is the time for us to demand that our representatives in local, state, and federal government enact common-sense gun laws to protect not only our children, but all citizens. We can begin by closing loopholes in background checks and making semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity magazines illegal for use by anyone other than the police and military.
Rather than teach violence as a means to solve problems, parents can help their children to cultivate restraint, good judgment, kindness, generosity and respect toward others. Parents can also limit their children’s exposure to virtual gun violence through TV, movies and video games. Parents can model positive behavior themselves to enhance their children’s moral and prosocial development. If you are not already talking with your children about gun violence, listen to their concerns and have honest discussions. We can teach our children that kindness and compassion toward others, and problem-solving together, rather than violence and guns, will lead to a healthy and safe society.
Alan M. Delamater, Ph.D., is professor of pediatrics and Director of Clinical Psychology at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth — the University of Miami Health System.