In a Sandy Hook, Conn., firehouse in 2012, not long after another school shooting, a group of terrified parents was waiting for news about their children. Connecticut’s governor, Dan Malloy, then walked into the room and quietly told them, “If you haven’t been reunited with your loved one by now, that is not going to happen.” The room convulsed in grief.
That scene remains haunting because it hints at both the agony and the scale of mass shootings. Children keep dying. And our country won’t do anything about it.
The United States, to put it bluntly, has grown callous about the lives of its children. We mourn their deaths when they happen, of course. But it’s an empty mourning, because it is not accompanied by any effort to prevent more suffering — including straightforward steps that every other affluent nation has taken.
Guns are a big part of the callousness, but only a part of it. They are one of three main reasons the United States has become “the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into,” according to a study in Health Affairs. The other two are vehicle crashes and infant mortality.
The chart here, from that study, shows just how much of an outlier the United States has become. This country suffers almost 21,000 “excess deaths” each year. That’s how many children and teenagers would be spared if the United States had an average mortality rate for a rich country.
Here’s another way to think about those 21,000: Imagine the Sandy Hook firehouse, filled with the devastated families of 20 children. Now add two other Sandy Hook firehouses, each with 20 more families receiving the worst possible news. Now imagine that scene repeating itself every day, year after year after year.
Our outlier status is relatively new, too. In the 1960s, the United States had a child-mortality rate slightly below that of other rich countries. So it’s not as if the problem stems from an immutable American characteristic.
Other countries are simply trying harder to keep their children alive. They have studied major causes of death and then attacked them, in an evidence-based way.
What would such an approach look like in this country?
On guns, it would start with universal background checks and tighter semiautomatic restrictions. The United States is always likely to have gun deaths, given the sheer number of guns, but we could have many fewer.
On vehicle deaths, we could mostly copy what other countries have already done: enforce speeding laws, crack down on “buzzed” driving, encourage seatbelts. Because we have lagged, American roads have gone from being average on safety to being the most dangerous in the affluent world.
On infant mortality, the solutions are more complex. They probably involve patching up the flawed safety net. Notably, infant mortality has fallen in states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare — and risen slightly in states that didn’t, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.
When you look at the big causes of preventable childhood death, it’s hard not to notice a political pattern. One party — the Republican Party — is blocking sensible gun laws. The same party has been trying to take away people’s health insurance. And while traffic safety is a bipartisan problem, blue states are generally trying harder than red states.
All of which is a good reminder to get politically engaged. If the current crop of politicians isn’t willing to protect our children from harm, let’s replace them with politicians — from either party — who are.
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