• Counseling Parents About the Leading Cause of Death in U.S. Children: Guns

    Kenny Lin, MD, MPH
    Posted on May 15, 2023

    A former colleague of mine maintained throughout his career that the most logical way for family physicians to provide preventive services for adults was to focus on the most common causes of death. Although the top diagnoses leading to death recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021 were heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19, that’s not what he meant. Instead, he was speaking of the “actual causes of death,” or the behavioral causes of the causes, which from 1990 to 2017 were tobacco use, poor diets, and physical inactivity. Clinicians can have the largest effect on preventing death in adults by counseling patients to stop smoking, eat healthier foods, and exercise.

    What about children and adolescents? All-cause mortality in Americans 1 to 19 years of age has been increasing since 2019, partially due to COVID-19 but mostly from a rise in fatal injuries that began prior to the pandemic. Motor vehicle accidents, which have long been the top cause of death in this age group, were surpassed for the first time in 2020 by homicides and suicides from firearms. Mass shootings in schools and public places attract media attention, but data from the Gun Violence Archive show that these account for a tiny fraction of firearm-related deaths.

    In comparison, a 2022 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement reported that 28 children and young adults through 24 years of age die from gun violence in the United States every day—the equivalent of a typical classroom. A recent Commonwealth Fund report comparing the United States to 13 other high-income countries found that Americans are five times more likely to die from being shot than residents of Canada, Switzerland, or France. The report also noted that nonfatal and fatal firearm injuries generate more than $1 billion in initial medical costs each year.

    A cross-sectional study of four major cities (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia) found that firearm assaults in children increased substantially during the pandemic, with Black, Hispanic, and Asian children being significantly more likely to experience violence. In March, a nationally representative poll found that 21% of adults have been personally threatened with a gun, 19% have had a family member killed by a gun (including suicide), and 17% have personally witnessed someone being shot. However, only 26% of parents of children under 18 years said that their child’s physician had ever asked them about having guns in the home, and only 5% said that their doctor had discussed gun safety.

    A 2020 AFP article on prevention of childhood injury recommended that physicians “ask patients whether there are guns in the home and counsel them about the risk of gun-related injury and about safe storage practices … [and] consider contacting legislators if local gun laws are not in the best interest of children's safety.” A previous editorial that I co-authored with other AFP editors noted that “child-access prevention laws (e.g., safe gun storage) reduce self-inflicted and unintentional firearm deaths and nonfatal injuries among youth, and may reduce unintentional firearm injuries among adults.” By counseling patients in our offices and advocating for legislation to promote firearm safety, family physicians can complement community health initiatives that reduce the risk of gun violence in children. For example, Communities That Care, a prevention program that addresses risk and protective factors for behavioral problems early in life, was recently shown in a randomized trial to reduce the prevalence of handgun carrying in 4,400 adolescents living in 24 small towns in seven states.

    The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the American Academy of Family Physicians or its journals. This service is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.