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Opinion | We must do more to protect Michigan children from gun violence

As a pediatrician, I have cared for kids that have forever impacted me. I will never forget Freddy, a toddler who came to the emergency room after easily finding the gun in his parents’ office desk drawer and accidentally shooting himself in the belly. Following emergency surgery to stop the bleeding, he would need to relearn how to eat and walk but would eventually be okay.

Gurbaksh Esch
Gurbaksh Esch is a pediatrician at Michigan State University - Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, College of Human Medicine, Flint. (Courtesy photo)

It was a different story for 13-year-old Anna. She was shot in the head, point blank, by her brother, who had a long history of mental illness. The household gun was locked away but stored with ammunition. Nothing I could do would save her; Anna was brain dead and eventually taken off life support. Her parents grieved both their children and considered both as victims of gun violence.

I tell you these strikingly violent and gruesome stories to illustrate the need for legislation to prevent these firearm injuries and deaths and promote gun safety.

Firearm-related death is the second leading cause of death in children and teens, after motor vehicle accidents. Though gun-related deaths have mostly been attributed to homicide and suicide, there has been an approximately 125 percent increase in gun-related unintentional deaths amongst children during the pandemic. Further, our country is plagued by school shootings; the total number of school shootings has increased significantly since about 2016.

But where are children getting firearms from? Depending on where you live in the country, 18 percent to 64 percent of households have at least one gun. Additionally, in households with at least one gun, 40 percent of parents incorrectly thought their children did not know where the guns were stored and 22 percent incorrectly believed that their children had never handled the household gun. This raises serious concerns regarding gun storage. A study in 2018 found that among households with firearms, those with children tend to practice safer storage; however, since 2002, there has been an increase in the number of children living in households with at least one gun stored loaded and unlocked – an unsafe practice for storage.

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides guidelines for screening and recognition to pediatricians, who counsel families on firearms like they do about any potential injury risk, like car seats, seatbelts, bike helmets, and pool safety. We need our policymakers to take the same nonpartisan approach to this public health issue.

These are not problems without solutions. We need to strengthen our state and federal gun laws.

In Michigan, our lawmakers can act by passing a ban on the sale or possession of high-capacity magazines, a bill requiring gun locks and a pamphlet on gun safety to be included with every point of sale for gun purchases, and an Extreme Risk Protection Order, which would allow for temporary removal of a firearm from a person that is considered a danger to themselves or others.

At the federal level, we need continued and expanded funding for research on preventing firearm-related injuries and deaths. Our own University of Michigan is doing incredible public health research on this issue and would benefit from resources to do more. Since 2019, Congress has provided $25 million for this purpose, shared between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. This welcome initial investment comes after decades of no federal funding, so expanding that investment to $60 million this year, as was proposed in the President’s budget, would be a needed step to understand how we can prevent tragedies like those I see in my work.

As a pediatrician, caring for gun violence victims like Freddie and Anna has left an impact on me. Through my training, I have realized that words of reassurance and bandages only go so far; there is so much more that we can do to prevent these unnecessary wounds and traumas. As a parent of a soon-to-be toddler, I hope we can work together towards creating a place where my children and yours grow up healthier and safer.

I hope we can take what we have learned about gun violence and deaths ­— in stories like Freddie’s, Anna’s, and so many others — and create a world without the fear and risk of being shot. 

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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