Pediatricians need to protect children from gun violence

Over 300 pediatricians from the American Academy of Pediatrics went to the Hill this week to urge Congress to appropriate $50 million for gun violence prevention research. 

As pediatricians in Chicago, we are also here because we know all too well the effects of gun violence on our community and our patients. In 2017, there were over 39,000 or 109 people killed with guns each day. 

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As physicians, our job is one of prevention and treatment to keep children healthy and safe. Clearly, we are failing when it comes to gun violence.

As pediatric cardiologist and neonatologist, we care for critically ill children — some premature, some born with heart defects that require intensive medical and surgical care. Some go home to neighborhoods where the threat of gun violence is ever present. It is unacceptable that they survive the disease only to face the real threat of gun violence in the crossfire of drive-by shootings or accidents at home.

Parents in our community in Chicago feel the same and ranked gun-related violence in neighborhoods as the number one social concern and problem. 

Despite cries of outrage after mass shootings, efforts to prevent the devastating consequences of gun violence on children continue to face barriers. The opposing sides remain politically and factually divided arguing about basic facts and potential solutions.

We need more research to address this politically charged topic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was prohibited to use federal funds to perform research in gun violence in 1996 by Congress. This effectively put a stop to federally funded research into injuries and deaths caused by firearms. But in 2018 Congress altered the amendment soon after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy, stating that the CDC can once again do public health research into preventing gun injuries and death. 

The CDC regularly generates reports of mortality, infectious diseases and congenital heart disease and it needs to do this for gun violence. An example is the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report , the agency’s publication of “timely, reliable, authoritative, accurate, objective and useful public health information and recommendations.” Without such systematic data collection, public health solutions cannot be implemented.

This is a critical moment if we are to make impact on the epidemic of gun violence, an emergent public health crisis. In prior such crises when there were disagreements or controversies, time and time again, evidence-based research has informed policy to find solutions. Examples include establishing the link between smoking and lung cancer, back to sleep campaign for infants and debunking the link between vaccines and autism. These are just two examples of how population health can be enhanced by scientific research based on data.

One immediate way the CDC can help clarify and identify where to target public health measures is through creation of a national registry. But this takes funding.

To be sure, some have argued that gun violence research should not be funded because “in some cases, the views of researchers clearly influence their research product,” proving a political point instead of making a difference. Others might argue that gun violence research does not belong in the realm of government-sponsored research because it may lead to infringement of the constitutional right to bear arms. It is also true that funding could come from state level, as is happening in California or other private agencies. But these examples are few and will not give us comprehensive national data.

Certainly, pediatricians can also do more. We should screen about guns in the home, identify high-risk patients and advise about removal and safe storage. But to be able to do this, data must be available to start a conversation from a place of shared facts.

We must ensure that gun research will advance because our children deserve to be kept safe. One way to accomplish this is for all of us to support H.R. 674, Gun Violence Prevention Research Act of 2019.

Nana Matoba, M.D. M.P.H., is a neonatologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @nana_matobs. Angira Patel, M.D. M.P.H., is a pediatric cardiologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, and an associate professor of pediatrics and medical education and member of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @angira_patel