The current issue of the journal Pediatrics contains a disturbing article on childhood gun violence; disturbing for what it says and for what it doesn’t say. The article uses a relatively new source for analyzing the incidence and cost of child and adolescent hospitalizations for gunshot wounds and comes up with numbers that are much higher than previously believed to be the case. The authors examined data from hospitals that cover 96% of the total U.S. population and computed their estimates based on admissions under the age of 20 coded for any type of gunshot wound.
In brief, the researchers found that there were almost 7,400 hospitalizations for gunshot wounds in 2009, with the overwhelming majority concentrated in African-American males ages 15 to 19. This group accounted for more than half of all the hospitalizations, with a rate at least ten times higher than White males of the same age. The racial disparity in gun violence between Blacks and Whites of all ages is significant, but it appears to be highest in the late adolescent years.
The article is important because it is derived from a data source that is probably more representative than any other source used by public health researchers to date. Nevertheless, the findings about the incidence and demographics of adolescent gun violence are not substantially different from what we already know. Frankly, if there’s anyone out there who still needs to see more data to convince them that gun violence, particularly directed at adolescents, is a public health issue, then that’s someone who won’t be convinced there’s a problem even if they took a bullet in the head.
I think that physicians, public health researchers and other health professionals need to stop accumulating data about gun violence and start figuring out effective and realistic strategies for dealing with the problem itself. They also need to stop being concerned about whether their research can be used to offset the continued promotional activities of the NRA. The NRA isn’t in the business of doing research on gun violence or doing research on anything else. The NRA is in the business of marketing guns. And as long as its message doesn’t create the risk of legal retaliation, the NRA will keep telling its members what they want to hear. Which may or may not have anything to do with the facts.
The advocacy groups and medical professionals that want to end gun violence need to figure out how to end gun violence, whether or not their strategies appeal to gun owners, or non-gun owners or anyone and everyone else. Gun violence is aberrant behavior and while we know everything we need to know about the results of this behavior, we know next to nothing about why people who commit this kind of behavior act the way they do. If we figured out this behavior perhaps we would have a better chance of stopping it before it begins.