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Opinion | Pediatrician: A Michigan gun storage law will save young lives

Chloe was 7 years old when I met her on the general pediatric ward of the hospital. She had never walked, talked, or fed herself. Chloe had been developing beautifully until six months of age, when she fell victim to the number one killer of children in America: firearms.

Grace Luger headshot
Dr. Grace Luger is a Texas native and a second-year pediatric resident at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. Her interests include advocacy, community and global health, and injury prevention as she cares for the youth of Michigan.

One fateful day, Chloe’s 5-year-old brother found a loaded gun lying on the floor of their home. He picked it up and fired, spraying bullets across the house. His mother was killed, and Chloe’s spinal cord was transected by a bullet. Though she survived, the injury was devastating, causing massive blood loss and permanent brain injury. With safe gun storage, this could all have been prevented.

Some may write off stories like this as an uncommon fluke, a rare and tragic accident. However, in 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death in U.S. children, surpassing car accidents, heart disease and cancer. Just 46 percent of U.S. gun owners store their guns safely, and accidental gun injuries kill over 400 Americans each year.

As Chloe laid on the hospital bed, her eyes wandered the room to her grandmother. I laid my stethoscope on her chest, the same stethoscope that listened to the wheezing lungs of a child with asthma and the cardiac murmurs in the newborn nursery. 

As I listened to Chloe, the crackles in her right lung, a noise often heard in pneumonia, rattled my stethoscope. Since the accident she has required 24-hour care due to the complexity of her case. She has been in and out of the hospital every few months for worsening seizures, difficulty tolerating her feeding tube, new infections and many other medical comorbidities. 

My fingers moved to the back of her neck and the scar tissue from the bullet wounds jarred my body. As I sat with her and her grandmother, I could only imagine how Chole’s story could have been radically different if guns had been stored safely. Children deserve common-sense gun reform to keep them safe in their school, in their homes, and in their communities.

Americans have seen the horrors of school shootings on the news, from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Uvalde, and Michiganders are now keenly aware of this devastation and fear, having experienced two mass shootings in our own state, at Oxford High School and Michigan State University, within the past fifteen months. 

The problem is only getting worse. Nationally, 2021-2022 was the most violent school year on record, with 193 incidents of gunfire in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, leading to 59 deaths and countless more wounded. The trauma extends far beyond schools and into communities and homes. Recent estimates suggest 4.2 percent of all children in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.

We also know that lack of effective firearm control and prevention laws impacts some groups disproportionately. In Michigan, gun violence disproportionately impacts Black Michiganders, particularly Black youth. The rate of Michigan teenagers killed by firearm-related homicide increased 70 percent from 2020 to 2021, with Black children being 4 times as likely to die by gun violence in the state.

Gun-related suicides are also increasing across the nation, and Michigan is no exception with an increase in gun-related suicides of 63 percent from 2005 to 2019.

Thankfully, there are strategies that we know work to prevent these tragedies: requiring safe firearm storage and preventing children from gaining access to firearms. States that have adopted child access prevention (CAP) laws and safe storage laws have seen sizable decreases in firearm-related deaths. 

Deaths by self-inflicted gunshot wounds dropped 24.9 percent in states that implemented gun lock requirements, and CAP laws have also proved effective in the reduction in all childhood firearm fatalities including homicide, suicide and unintentional fatalities

One recent study investigated the impact of proper gun storage on firearm-injury prevention and concluded safely storing guns would eliminate up to 32 percent of youth firearm deaths.

In Michigan, there are currently no laws to require either safe storage of firearms or to prohibit minors’ access to firearms. But, thankfully, we have an opportunity to change this. In the state Legislature, there are multiple bills proposed that could generate a more secure world for the children of Michigan. 

Senate Bill 79 addresses the issue of minors’ access to firearms. This bill would require firearms accessible to minors to be stored in locked boxes or require the firearm to be unloaded with a properly engaged locking device to prevent access to minors. Passage of this bill can be expected to substantially reduce the number of Michigan children who die firearm-related deaths. 

As a pediatrician, I urge you to tell your state legislators that the time for effective, common-sense firearm prevention laws is now. Chloe, like all children in Michigan, deserves to live in a state that prioritizes protecting children from preventable injuries and death, so that other children do not need to experience the same sort of tragedy.

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