As remembrances of the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre fade, deaths by gun continue in ones and twos and threes that add up to hundreds of Sandy Hooks each year.
A school shooting Friday at a Colorado school made national news, but most shootings don’t, so it’s easy to remain unaware of just how many there are.
Thursday night at Town Hall Seattle, a judge and several doctors/researchers affiliated with Seattle Children’s, the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center talked about protecting children from gun violence of all kinds.
Concentrated carnage has the power to get our attention, but there wasn’t as much action as might have been expected in the weeks and months after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. So what can we expect in reaction to the constant drip of deaths from Seattle to Baltimore, Detroit to New Orleans?
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Maybe, “what can we do?” is a more appropriate question, and the answer from Thursday is: Don’t wait for dramatic change, work toward solutions persistently. The panelists suggested using more facts and less emotion, but they brought both to the discussion.
Dr. Fred Rivara is a pediatrician and nationally recognized expert on injuries to children and how to prevent them. The moderator, Dr. Leslie Walker, asked him to describe the current situation.
“The number of people, including children, that are killed or injured each year in our community and in our country is a national disgrace,” he said. In the year since Sandy Hook, he said, 30,000 people have died of gun violence in the United States, 2,700 of them children.
“In Washington state in the last five years there have been more deaths from guns than we’ve had from motor vehicles,” he said. Kids in America die from guns at a rate 25 times that of any other industrialized country. And, he said, 87 percent of the child deaths from guns in the world occur here in the United States.
In this state, he said, 30 to 40 percent of households have guns, many of them loaded and unlocked. “We think about accidental shootings, we think about homicides, but you have to understand that here in the state of Washington, 75 percent of gun deaths are suicides.”
U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez said being a felon in possession of a gun is the third most common charge in federal courts, and mostly involves young adults.
Dr. Beth Ebel, who has seen the effects of violence as a pediatrician at Harborview Medical Center, talked about what families can do. She suggested treating gun violence like the flu by taking steps to protect the vulnerable. Keep guns out of the house, or at least away from children. Hiding a gun isn’t good enough. Just as kids find the hidden Christmas present, she said, they’ll find the hidden gun. She suggested using a gun safe.
And if you’re leaving your child with other people, ask about guns in their homes, the same way you’d discuss nuts if your child were allergic.
Dr. Dmitri Christakis, who studies the impact of violence in media, said thousands of studies have found a strong link between on-screen violence and real-world aggression. He stressed that the younger you are, the stronger the link. Kids can be affected by levels of violence adults shrug off.
But, he said, there is no simple explanation for violence: “In most cases it’s a toxic mix” of factors.
That’s true, but no matter what other factors are present, having access to a gun can make a situation worse. Ebel mentioned an incident that happened in China about the same time as the Sandy Hook shootings. A man with a knife attacked a woman and 22 children at an elementary school in Chengping in central China. They were all injured, but none was killed. That would likely have been different if he had used a gun. Knives and bare hands can kill, but not nearly so easily as guns.
The panelists leaned toward discussing treatment of gun violence as a public-health issue, partly to avoid the blowback attached to the idea of gun control. They talked about the powerful lobbying muscle that keeps the topic off the table in Washington, D.C. Most of the activity is at the state level.
There is an initiative battle under way in Washington state now. Initiative 594 would require background checks for private gun transfers, and Initiative 591 would block the state from adopting background checks stricter than the federal standard.
A panelist mentioned marriage equality and marijuana legalization as goals that not long ago seemed impossible to achieve, but advocates worked steadily, gradually overcoming resistance. Slow and steady works, but there is so much pain along the way.
Rivera read a letter from John Bowman, whose daughter Amina was shot and seriously injured last year with a gun in a classmate’s backpack. She was a third-grader in Bremerton at the time.
Bowman wrote about feeling shock, “How could our beautiful, healthy young girl that we dropped off at school that morning be shot down in her third-grade classroom?” He wrote, ”We pray that school violence and irresponsible gun ownership will end.”
Someday that prayer will be answered, and the sooner the better.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org