Charles had written a beautiful letter to his mother about his aspirations to be a doctor "who made people well and took care of their bones." I often think about what it would be like if Charles were alive now. He would be through medical school, residency and practicing orthopedics – making people well.
But random gun violence robbed Charles of his dream and society of a gifted surgeon.
When I wrote that letter, I hoped my outrage would help engender action. I wanted it to wake people up to what guns do. I wanted people to know that guns kill and maim children. I was far from alone in the experience of losing a child to a gun fatality. Pediatricians all around the country had their own Charles's – children they cared about and mourned. They began to speak up in newspapers, on the radio and TV. And they sponsored PSAs and panels in their churches and community centers.
The messages of the pediatric community in the early 1990s reinforced calls to action from law enforcement, clergy and public figures and families. Together, the voices told a story that had a major impact. Gun deaths among children and adolescents in the United States hit their peak in 1993 and then fell steadily until the early 2000s. Firearm related deaths among youth ages 15 to 19 declined from 24 per 100,000 to 12 per 100,000 in 2001. In other words, gun deaths were cut in half in part because people who cared stood up and spoke out.
"We know that we can make a difference in gun violence prevention if we work together with parents and communities."
The problem is that from 2001 to the present, the rates have remained steady, and federal statistics show an average of seven children and teens under the age of 20 continue to be killed by guns each day. But the voices are now rising again…slowly, steadily and increasingly including the strong voices of parents.
I called Mrs. Copney the other day to ask her how she was, to talk about Charles and to tell her about this blog post. She thinks about Charles every single day and worries about how awful the gun problem is in our country. Like so many parents, she fears what is ahead if gun laws and controls are not enacted and enforced.
As pediatricians, we go to work each day with the single purpose of keeping children safe and well. We glory in their aspirations and work alongside their parents and teachers to assure their health, growth and development. While guns remain as ubiquitous as they have become in the United States, we need to do at least three things:
Follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines and policy recommendation to ask about guns in the home and work to ensure that if families must keep a gun at home that it be stored, unloaded and locked.
Speak out with authority in our communities, churches, schools and local clubs providing correct information so that people can understand that guns put us at risk of harm.
Support legislation and policies for gun violence reduction.
We know that we can make a difference in gun violence prevention if we work together with parents and communities. Our goal should be that no family should lose another child or adolescent to preventable gun violence.
Judith Palfrey, MD, FAAP, a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is the T. Berry Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and serves as director of the Global Pediatrics Program at Boston Children's Hospital. She is the author of books that include
Community Child Health: An Action Plan for Today and
Child Health in America: Making A Difference Through Advocacy.