[8 June 2015] - More than 17 million children — which works out to be more than one-fourth of the country’s population of kids — have been exposed to violence involving a potentially deadly weapon, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
The study authors defined “exposure” as either being personally assaulted or witnessing someone else being assaulted by a weapon, ranging from guns to rocks to sticks. They also drilled down the data to focus on weapons with “high lethality risk,” finding that about two million children have been directly victimised with either a gun or a knife.
The findings point to an issue that researchers are increasingly framing as a serious health issue. Altogether, the number of children who have been exposed to weapon-related violence — which makes them more likely to experience both physical and mental harm — exceeds the number of children who have diabetes or cancer.
“Millions of children are being exposed to violence involving weapons, and many of them are victimised by guns and knives, with an elevated risk of trauma and serious injury,” Kimberly Mitchell, the study’s lead study author and a scientist at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said in a statement regarding the findings.
Mitchell’s research confirmed that children of colour and children from low-income families are the most likely to be exposed to weapon violence before they turn 18.
Previous studies have found that gun violence specifically is taking a serious toll on American children. About 10,000 kids are killed or injured by firearms each year in the United States, a grim statistic that has led major paediatricians’ groups to declare gun violence as a “public health threat.” The American Academy of Pediatrics now encourages doctors to play a role in advocating for gun violence prevention, comparing safety measures like gun storage to wearing seatbelts.
Weapons carry potential mental health consequences, too. Exposure to violence, particularly coupled with the stresses that result from growing up in poverty, puts kids more at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nonetheless, efforts to address gun violence from a public health standpoint have been met with considerable resistance. For decades, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have struggled to conduct studies on the topic, thanks to the NRA’s successful move to strip funding for gun violence research in the 1990s. Dr Vivek Murthy, the current US Surgeon General, was initially blocked from being confirmed because some NRA-backed politicians raised concerns about his public comments about gun control. And some states have even banned doctors from discussing gun safety with their patients.
While the issue still sparks political controversy, it’s hardly divisive among the medical community, which is in broad agreement that physicians have an important role to play in reducing deaths and injuries from weapons. Top medical groups — including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric Association — all agree that gun violence is a health issue.
Mitchell and her colleagues conclude that “further work on improving gun safety practices and taking steps to reduce children’s exposure to weapon-involved violence is warranted to reduce this problem,” pointing out their findings underscore the importance of paediatricians asking their patients about their experiences with violence.