Boston pediatrician: Families can act first on gun control

Dr. Robert Sege/Courtesy photo

Dr. Robert Sege is director of the Division of Family and Child Advocacy at Boston Medical Center and professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. He helped to write the American Academy of Pediatrics policy on firearms and was invited to the White House last week for a briefing on firearms safety.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration took stock of our nation’s response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I listened as Vice President Joe Biden addressed a handpicked crowd gathered at the White House. Six months after the massacre, he began by reciting, in detail that only C-SPAN junkies could love, the 21 executive orders that the president has signed.

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The administration beefed up background checks and encouraged states to fully participate in them. The president has lifted restrictions on firearms research – although, so far, he has not directed any spending in this area. Biden talked about expert panels convened to write guidance for schools and religious institutions.

Just as I fought the urge to daydream, his tone changed. Biden began demonstrating the passion that led to him becoming a national leader. He recounted the disgraceful Senate vote in which a minority of senators, fearful of their own shadows, had blocked passage of a simple measure to close loopholes in the background check systems, loopholes that allow criminals – think Whitey Bulger – to buy weapons at gun shows. He told us what we already knew: The Senators who blocked the bill saw their approval ratings plummet; those who voted against the NRA saw theirs soar. The American people, he declared, are finally ready for change.

I believe him. The 65,000 pediatricians nationwide have demanded that the American Academy of Pediatrics put firearms safety at the top of our legislative agenda. The president of the AAP has been to the White House and its members from throughout the United States have gone to Capitol Hill to lobby. On Thursday, pediatric residents from throughout Massachusetts fanned out over Beacon Hill in support of Governor Patrick’s modest bill to tighten firearms regulations in the Commonwealth.

Every six days, a child under the age of 15 dies from an unintentional firearm injury, typically at the hands of a friend or a sibling, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keeping guns out of the reach of children can prevent this. Teen suicide attempts are fatal when there is a gun around; keeping loaded, unlocked guns out of the house prevents suicide. Many teen homicides involve weapons obtained from home, or from the home of a friend. From Columbine to Sandy Hook, many disturbed young killers have used their family’s arsenals.

Pediatricians care because we care for America’s children. Many of us, like me, have counseled parents on how to tell their child why a friend or relative was murdered. We have referred teens to bereavement counseling and seen our healthy patients die. Families bring their kids to the doctor for advice. They demonstrate their trust by inviting us into their lives, by sharing their challenges and triumphs, their hopes and fears.

As doctors and nurses, we advise parents that they need to keep guns away from children. Their natural curiosity will trump gun safety lectures. Teenagers live passionate, impulsive lives. Parents need to make sure that these inevitable aspects of adolescence don’t lead to tragedy. Teens should not have access to loaded weapons. Plenty of good hard science links teen suicide and homicide to having a gun available – often from home –when passion strikes.

Fortunately, our state recognizes the importance of allowing doctors and families to have frank discussions; so far, the Florida courts do as well.

Firearms are preceded only by automobile crashes in killing kids. Vice President Biden told us that in the six months since Sandy Hook, more than 5,000 Americans have died by firearm. More have died in just these last six months than those who died in Afghanistan, or Iraq. Each of us knows, from the hundreds of conversations we have with families, how firearms and fear limit the lives of so many children. The vice president remains convinced that federal legislation to close loopholes in background checks and limit the sales of assault weapons and high capacity magazines will pass Congress.

I would like to share Mr. Biden’s optimism. “Be patient” one seasoned lobbyist told me while we were milling about after the presentation. “After all, the Brady bill took seven years to pass.”

The Vice President, obviously frustrated with Congress, told us that Americans want the carnage to end. While we’re waiting for politicians to act, let’s move this discussion out of the White House and into our homes. Children and teens should not have access to guns. Parents can ask if there are guns where their children play, and all of us can do a better job keeping our political debates from getting in the way of common sense.

Once most of us have made these decisions, perhaps our leaders will follow.