The carnage among our children

June 15, 1992

The American Medical Association is ringing a compelling alarm: our children are being killed in the streets. That should not have needed saying -- the evidence is all around us. But for too long, many Americans have assumed it was only a problem in the inner cities.

Shattering that misconception was long overdue, and shatter it the doctors did. They let go a barrage of their own in 70 study reports and editorials in 10 scientific journals, arguing persuasively that death and injury by gunshot is a manifest public health crisis. The biggest increases in death rates are in the inner city, but they came among white youths in large and small cities. Even in the suburbs, the death rates are rising fast enough to be shocking.

Gunshot wounds are the second leading cause of death among all high-school-aged children, not just those in the poorest sections of America's cities. To emphasize that it is truly an emergency, the doctors brought out their own heavy artillery: Surgeon General Antonia Novello, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and George Lundberg, editor of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association.

Gun advocates, predictably, attacked the reports. James Baker, chief National Rifle Association lobbyist, took issue with the doctors themselves. Doctors cause enough accidental deaths, he told reporters. Let them clean their own houses.

Doctors have as much right as anyone to comment on society's problems, but that was lost on him, as was the notion that doctors, who deal daily with the victims, are exactly the people who should raise complaints. At any rate, the physicians, led by Drs. Koop and Lundberg, rebutted that line by showing how well efforts similar to what they are proposing worked to cut auto death rates.

The most immediate problem is the wide availability of handguns to children. A study of more than 900 high-school juniors in Seattle -- generally thought to be free of the problems of the older, Eastern cities -- found that more than half of all males and more than a third of all students knew where to get guns easily. Moreover, 47 percent of the males already had access to firepower. Some 11 percent owned handguns and of these, half carried them to school.

What the doctors propose is a licensing and education program similar to that which brought down auto fatality rates, stringently applied to guns. Noting that this did not require confiscation or banning of autos, the doctors believe their proposals could bypass the objections of the big bugaboo of the Second Amendment crowd, which sees all regulations as attempts to sneak up on a gun ban. The doctors are making valid points about a problem that demands action. It's about time someone did.

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