In August, 53 people died in mass shootings in the United States. What must our children think?
Again and again, a terrible spree of gunfire takes 10, 20, 50 lives. The nation flirts with addressing the elephant in the room — the gun — but as the shocking pain subsides, we retreat to a stalemate.
What must our children think? They must think it’s open season. They must think we are lying when we say we want to keep them safe. Our inaction makes battlegrounds out of their high schools, colleges, elementary schools, and churches. The concert venues, shopping centers and downtowns that are the rhythm and the backbone of everyday life in America are battlefields, too. And they all have names: Columbine, Parkland, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Charleston. Las Vegas, Thousand Oaks, El Paso, Dayton and now Odessa.
When we fail to act on gun violence, we model a repugnantly un-American attitude: that there is nothing to be done. This should ring false to the nation that has confronted a Great Depression, cured polio, taken away the death sentence of childhood leukemia, and saved 50,000 lives thanks to automobile safety innovations like airbags. That America is defined by innovation, compassion and stick-to-itiveness.
Instead of bringing these qualities to bear on our national shame of gun violence, we blame “mental health.” As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and the founder of the nonprofit Child Mind Institute, I can see my field being used as a scapegoat and a cop-out in the fight over gun policy. What everyone needs to know is that people with psychiatric disorders are no more likely to be violent than the general population.
The best way to support the health of our children, both physical and mental, is to save them from being killed and to give them a country where they can feel safe and cared-for. We can reduce the constant trauma of violence in their towns and cities. How? We must call on the federal government, which has consistently failed our children and families, to do its duty and institute universal background checks and behavioral health screenings for every gun purchase. Anything else is unacceptable and un-American.
If lawmakers are serious about children’s health, I call on them to make this statement: Guns are a method of death. Here are the statistics: According to research at Boston University and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, states with fewer guns have fewer gun deaths. Gun death rates are lowest in states that score high marks on restrictive gun legislation.
If the federal government won’t act, then our local, municipal and state governments must take the mantle. Mayors need to make their cities safe for children. Governors need to make their states safe. If you want our children safe, I encourage you to contact your representatives and appointed officials at all levels and call on them to acknowledge the dangers of guns.
The most important risk factor for violence isn’t a mental health disorder. It’s the presence of firearms. A gun in the home is linked to gun violence. I’ll go further: All our children are in a house with a gun, and it’s called America. We must institute universal background checks and behavioral health screenings. Otherwise we are telling our children that we cannot come together to find solutions. And that we don’t mean what we say when we say our children are the most important thing to us.