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“It must not for a moment be forgotten that the core of any social plan must be the child.”
-President Franklin Roosevelt, 1934.
“There are three things I like about Italian ships. First, their cuisine, which is unsurpassed. Second, their service, which is quite superb. And then, in time of emergency, there is none of this nonsense about women and children first.”
-Attributed to Winston Churchill by travel writer Henry Allen, 1917.
Churchill’s remark, aside from being uncannily prescient about a future Italian maritime disgrace (the Costa Concordia wreck), was made with tongue way up in cheek. He was a wit of immense self-certitude much given to sarcasm. His quip nevertheless serves as a foil to FDR’s vision of our obligations to children.
Let’s assume that we subscribe to FDR’s exhortation. If so, what is—or should be—our responsibility to protect children from the scourge of gun violence in America? And to what extent should children have a voice in that determination through their own advocates? Presently they have none that are effective.
These issues arise out of our great gun control debate : an intense, hearts-and-minds struggle that has long riven the country. On one side is the National Rifle Association (NRA), founded in 1871, formidable and unyielding. Few if any lobbies have ever employed more power. And with unequivocal success.
The other side is harder to identify. It comprises an impressive but diffuse array of organizations and prominent pols, most recently featuring President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Currently barnstorming across the country on a 100 day bus tour, the Mayor and his group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, are pushing for stricter gun control measures.
Pizzazz, however, is not productivity. When gauged by what matters—the current state of the law—the NRA has undeniably prevailed. At least so far. The proliferation of “stand your ground” and “right to carry” state laws attests to that reality. Every state allows carrying a concealed gun; only some require a permit.
Our Children in Jeopardy
Largely overlooked amid the parries and thrusts of the rival campaigns is the extent that gun violence afflicts our most vulnerable population: children. Inattention—or worse, indifference—to the particularly horrendous dangers that guns present to children perpetuates a volatile and often lethal environment for them.
Tons of guns. By some estimates approximately 300 million firearms circulate nationally—one for each man, woman and child. As if the country had informally adopted a “one person, one gun” rule to complement the “one person, one vote” rule for legislative apportionment.
One-third of all U.S. households with children younger than 18 have a gun, and more than 46% of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked. Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that these conditions significantly intensify the risk of suicide or unintentional injury among youths.
Predictable results follow. Children have become meat for the grinder that is American gun violence. But what results is not sausage. Grim firearm fatality data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attest to the eye-popping depth of the U.S. problem:
Firearm fatalities: About 3,000 young children and teens die from gunfire every year.
A child or teen dies or is injured every 30 minutes from guns.
Gun related deaths are the numerical equivalent of an ongoing virulent plague afflicting our kids. Over the past 50 years, three times more young children and teens died from guns on American soil than the combined total of U.S. soldiers killed in wars abroad.
Earlier this year, pediatricians Judith and Sean Palfrey wrote a seminal article in The New England Journal of Medicine entitled, “Preventing Gun Deaths in Children.” Their research findings astound. Shootings in the United States accounted for twice as many deaths among youths as caused by cancer, five times as many as heart disease, and 15 times as many as infections. Could there be a more astonishing lapse of core governmental responsibility? And of public oversight?
The preventable death of a child kills twice: first the victim; then the souls of those who believe that they could have made a difference. My daughter, Casey, a first-year pediatric resident, often treats terminally ill or injured children. Dismaying to be sure. But hers is nothing compared to the pain of loved ones who must wrestle interminably with guilt.
Suicide is Fatal
Young people get depressed. Unavoidably. Many of those who do attempt suicide: for youths between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. It results in approximately 4600 young lives lost each year. The top three methods used in suicides of young people are firearms (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%).
Given the inevitability of depressed youths, the means available in the home to carry out their suicidal urges become important. Vitally important. Here’s why: A huge disparity prevails between suicide attempts and culminated suicides based on the means used. Less than 5% of such attempts using drugs are lethal; but 90% of those involving guns are.
Contrasts with Other Industrialized Countries
Young people everywhere, particularly teenage males, grapple frequently with emotional turmoil. So among industrial societies one could reasonably infer at least marginally comparable correlations between fatal gun violence and young people. True?
Not even close. Contrast our firearms fatality rates (which include suicides) among children under 15 years old with those of other industrialized countries. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the U.S. rate is nearly twelve times higher than in 25 other industrialized countries combined. Another grisly datum: among the world’s 23 wealthiest countries, 87% of all children killed by guns are American.
Clearly, the issue is culture-specific. And no industrial nation now or ever before has had a greater affinity for firearms than does the U.S.
Just as actions have consequences, perceptions impact as well. In an interview with CNN in April, Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments following a 10-day around-the-world trip spawned numerous headlines, including this one from CNN: “Kerry: Foreign students ‘scared’ of guns in U.S.” Kerry specifically cited Japan, noting that it has highly restrictive gun laws and thus relatively few deaths from gun violence. “They think they’re not safe in the United States and so they don’t come,” he said.
The Root of the Matter
Gun violence. It inheres in our distinctive cultural DNA, with its iconic reverence for firearms. After all, ours was a country baptized in armed revolt. Further, we could not have tamed a continental wilderness without guns. Add to that the archetype of the gun-bearing cowboy or urban cop as individualist hero. The entertainment industry has profited wildly from its portrayals of strong, tough, independent heroes willing to dole out justice from the muzzle of a gun barrel. (“Go ahead, make my day!”)
Our gun culture, while distinctive, does not alone explain the popularity of guns in America. The need for a gun is a rationale pregnant with rampant self-interest. Economic reward is perhaps its greatest impetus. The U.S. gun business is a multi-billion dollar industry. An article in the Christian Science Monitor earlier this year estimated the annual economic impact of the gun industry on the United States at $31.8 billion. A related article in theWashington Post projected 2013 gun and ammo sales producing $11.7 billion and $993 million in profits.
The gun business also creates jobs. Lots of them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, over 35,000 people are directly employed by the firearm manufacturing industry, which in turn serves over 50,000 retail gun dealers—with many more employees. The National Shooting Sports Foundation (an industry trade association) estimates the number of jobs related to the firearms industry at over 209,000.
Such economic booty begets political firepower.
Still, what is lucre to some is great loss to others. In their widely-referenced book, Gun Violence: The Real Costs, researchers Cook and Ludwig estimate the annual costs directly attributable to gun violence against youth in the United States to exceed $15 billion.
74 Million Politically Powerless
The gun rights versus gun control debate simmers with intense polarity. Generally, that’s good; unfettered debate is the soul of a free society. With one glaring exception: although profoundly victimized by gun violence, children have no effective political impact. Perpetuating this vulnerability is the fact that the 74 million American children under 18 cannot vote and rarely contribute to political campaigns. That means no seat at the table at which will be debated issues directly affecting their very existence.
Any other group of this size would have far more political clout. Americans 55 and older, for example, comprise roughly the same number (76 million). They vote in large numbers. They contribute heavily to political campaigns. And they underwrite a powerful lobby. Few would deem the AARP ineffective in its advocacy.
The California group Children Now bewails the political impotence of children.
Our nation’s leaders often speak of children being a priority, yet the reality is that children continue to be underrepresented and under-funded by state and federal policymakers. Their well-being is steadily declining because our political system is driven by the interplay and competition among interest groups…
Since children currently do not have any source of political power behind them, they have no competitive voice in this system.
When it comes to gun violence, with its profound and often cruel consequences, children don’t need more charity, but rather simple justice. Without it, theirs is a future clouded and precarious.
Human Rights are Children’s Rights
In 1989, The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the CRC). Signed by the U.S., the CRC was an unabashed innovation. Expressly rejected were previous anemic notions of children’s rights, typified by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1780. In that document, children were regarded as a residual category of person, lacking full human rights.
Instead, the CRC adopted humane and innovative notions of children’s rights requiring special forms of protection. Included in these entitlements were fundamental rights of participation: to have their opinion taken into consideration when adults make decisions on their behalf (Article 12); to express their views (Article 13); and to join or form associations to represent their own interests (Article 15).
In short, children have a legal and ethical right under international law to a seat at the table on matters that affect them. Under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, however, no treaty can override domestic law. The federal government can reject or amend any provisions of the Convention. And rights without the power of enforcement are like pictures of food to someone starving. At the least, however, the CRC can serve as a polestar.
Lax Laws = Gunshot Kids
What can explain our collective deafness to the cacophony of child-victim gun violence? A distinct and enduring cultural affinity for guns accounts for part of it. And certainly gun industry profits play a large role.
But lax gun laws and the attitudes they reflect also jeopardize our children. Grievously so. A recent example: earlier this year in Kentucky a 5-year-old boy, Christian Sparks, accidentally shot dead his 2-year-old sister, Caroline. The rifle that killed Caroline was a gift to Christian, perfectly legal in Kentucky and the other 29 states without minimum age requirements for possession of a long gun.
Dr. Arthur Kellerman of the Rand Corporation, who says his research was terminated due to NRA pressure, found that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be involved in the death of a family member than in self-defense. Notwithstanding the plague of gun violence afflicting kids, the NRA has nonetheless opposed “safe-storage” child access prevention (CAP) laws—those requiring locked up guns in homes with children. Its justification? Locks would render firearms “useless in self-defense situations.”
Doctors have a different view. A multistate study reported in the February, 2005 issue of JAMA, “Gun Storage Practices and Risk of Youth Suicide and Unintentional Firearm Injuries,” concluded that the need to educate families about keeping kids away from the family guns has become paramount. How best to do that is the issue, not whether to do it.
Just as lax gun laws facilitate gun violence, restrictive laws could curtail it—significantly. The JAMA study strongly indicates that CAP laws are effective in reducing both unintentional firearm deaths and suicides among children and youths in homes where guns are stored. Twenty-eight states have CAP laws. They make adults criminally liable if it is determined that children were able to access their firearms. The liability depends on factors that vary by state. For example, only six states—Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Texas—make adults liable whether or not the child uses the firearm to cause injury, while eight other states punish adults only if the firearm is used. Of these, some states only penalize the responsible adult after someone has been shot. Other states impose liability if the weapon is not stored property.
Among states with the highest levels of child gun deaths, 7 of 10 do not have CAP laws. Among states with the lowest levels of child gun deaths, 7 of 10 do have CAP laws. Key to the efficacy of a CAP law is the related penalty. If it is a felony, it correlates with a 30-40% reduction in gun injuries among both adults and children. Conversely, in states where the penalty is only a misdemeanor, the impact is not statistically significant.
The Power of the Gun Lobby
So what do our appalling child gun death data imply? That many if not most American adults are so in the thrall of their craving for guns that they allow the safety of their children to be flagrantly compromised?
Maybe not. Consider: after the Sandy Hook massacre, more comprehensive screening of gun buyers was supported by 91% of U.S. voters, including 88% of gun-owning households, according to a March 2013 Quinnipiac University poll. Yet President Obama’s proposed mandatory background check bill failed to even reach a vote in a Democrat-dominated U.S. Senate. That’s a stunning display of political power. By any standard.
Blocking a popular gun control proposal was only the most recent illustration of the NRA’s legendary influence over Congress. Federal law already forbids The Consumer Product Safety Commission from regulating the manufacture or sale of guns or ammunition. So the Commission can regulate teddy bears and toy guns, but not real guns. Feel safer?
On other fronts of this political war, the NRA has recently won key victories. It persuaded Congress to withhold government funding of research on gun injury prevention. And it lobbied a provision into the Affordable Care Act that inhibits pediatricians from discussing guns in the home with their patients or their patients’ parents.
Gun violence victimizes U.S. children unremittingly. As in no other country, now or ever before. Until we can stanch this problem, any pretensions of being an enlightened society are fanciful. Two factors perpetuate this tragedy: the accessibility of guns to the children themselves; and the systemic lack of accessibility by children to political leaders who could make a difference. Result: Children are bereft of rights or resources to protect themselves.
Conspicuous by its absence is the Congressional will to rectify what should be patently unacceptable. Balking legislators might find inspiration in a venerable saying attributed to Ghandi: “The true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Franklin Strier is a professor emeritus of law at California State University. He is the author of Reconstructing Justice: An Agenda For Trial Reform, and currently working on his new book, Kids and Guns. He lives in Palos Verdes, just south of Los Angeles.