MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we'd like to return to an issue that's in the news all too often. We're talking about gun violence, particularly that experienced by children. That's something the president touched on in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, and something that, in fact, dominated his speech last year. But when we talk about this issue, usually, tragically, we are talking about young people who've been killed.
But in a new report published in the journal Pediatrics, it looks at the many young people who were hospitalized with gun-related injuries in 2009. And the report found that, on average, 20 children and adolescents every day were hospitalized. The study also found large disparities in gender and race. We wanted to hear more about all this, so we've called on Dr. Robert Sege. He's one of the three co-authors of the study and the director of the Division of Family Child Advocacy at Boston Medical Center. Dr. Sege, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.
ROBERT SEGE: Thank you for inviting me.
MARTIN: I'll tell you what jumped out at me, and then you can tell me what jumped out at you. You looked at data from a national children's hospital database, and you found that the hospitalization rates were highest for 15 to 19-year-olds and for black males, and that there was a huge racial disparity here. That the rate for black males was 44.7 per 100,000, and a rate that more than 10 times that for white males. Any idea why that is?
SEGE: You know, I think that this mirrors what we've already seen in terms of death rates, that young, black men are at particularly higher risk for being shot. And one thing our data doesn't allow us to tell is whether this is an effect of poverty or an effect of living in dangerous cities. And I think that those are some of the issues. We know there are geographic hotspots, for example, that are really quite dangerous.
MARTIN: Well, you noted also in the report that, in fact - I think people might be interested in this - that these were, in fact, assaults. The hospitalizations due to assaults were most frequent and suicide attempts were least frequent. But those suicide attempts, when they did occur, were quite lethal, that something, like, of the deaths in the hospital occurred in 453 of those. But of those hospitalized after suicide attempts, 35.1 percent died. I wondered if that is significant, or is there something that you would want to point out about that?
SEGE: Yeah. I think that most suicide attempts that are made with a firearm result in death, and the children don't even get hospitalized. So previously, we've looked at death rates, and they're very high. And unfortunately, American teenagers have a higher rate of death from suicide. And what we know is the presence of a gun or the availability of a gun dramatically increases the rate of suicide deaths. Interestingly, it doesn't increase the rate of suicide attempts, but it increases the rate of suicide deaths.
And I think this data mirrors that because a person who tries to kill themselves with a gun often actually dies before they get to the hospital. And if they don't, their injuries are often so severe that even hospitalization can't save them.
MARTIN: Are there any other things that you would want to point out? As I said, that the racial disparity was significant to me and also the gender disparity. Males were the overwhelming majority of those affected by this.
SEGE: Yeah. I think that that's sort of common knowledge that boys and young men are much more likely to both use firearms and be victims of firearm violence than girls and young women. The other thing that I want to point out, though, is that every day three Americans under the age of 15 are hospitalized for firearms injuries. Those are entirely preventable.
MARTIN: How so?
SEGE: And most of those - most of those are accidents. And most of those come from finding a weapon at home. And what we say at the American Academy of Pediatrics is the safest home for a child is a home without a gun. And if there is a gun at home, it should be stored locked and unloaded. And we think that if that simple advice was followed, many of these injuries would not have happened.
MARTIN: The report also points out something that often is not discussed in these conversations about this issue and that is the cost of...
MARTIN: ...Hospitalization from gun injuries. I was interested in why you and the other authors wanted to talk about this, and what do you want to tell us about that?
SEGE: Well, the direct medical costs that we found for the year 2009 alone was $148 million. But those are the hospital charges. In addition, each child had physician charges. They may have had x-rays. They may have had rehabilitation costs, and of course their parents had lost work. And I think this is really important in that, as a society, we should be putting more money into prevention, into public health campaigns to prevent this sort of injury because we're spending a lot of money for cleaning up afterwards.
MARTIN: Well, you write that in the report. You say that public health efforts are needed to reduce gun injury. Talk about what that would look like, if you would.
SEGE: Well, you know, I get a lot of questions about what circumstances these injuries were in, what really helps? What kind of messages can we get to the public that will make them safer? Are there changes in the way guns are manufactured or safety devices that would protect children?
Are there changes in the law that would protect children? And there's been very, very little public health research. In fact, Congress passed regulations about 15 years ago that forbade the Center for Disease Control, which does a lot of injury research, from looking at firearms at all. And just for comparison, our cars are now much safer than they've ever been. We have many fewer traffic fatalities per mile driven. We protect children from swimming pool accidents, from all kinds of things, but very little's been done about firearms.
MARTIN: Didn't the president talk about this in his State of the Union address last year? In fact, didn't he, in the wake of that awful shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, say that it was his intention to lift the restrictions on this kind of research that could potentially lead to more understanding of how to prevent some of these kinds of injuries. Has that occurred, and has it made a difference to your knowledge?
SEGE: Well, very recently, the first federal grant announcement asking for firearms research went out. I don't believe any grants have actually been funded. And it's a wonderful first step. But it's still not nearly in proportion to the costs, both in terms of money and lives, that firearms injuries causes for children and adults in the United States.
MARTIN: Do you have any immediate recommendations that you feel comfortable offering or as part of your message here that we don't know what we could know because this is an area of research that has been pretty much closed off in recent years? Or are there some recommendations that you feel comfortable making?
SEGE: Yeah. I think that we now know that many guns that are used in crime come from a few rogue dealers. We can do a better job on finding them, on preventing strongman sales. We can close gun show loopholes. A majority of members of the National Rifle Association favor better background checks and closing the gun show loopholes. There's no reason why we don't do that.
And I think the other part is, in addition to policies, every family can take steps to keep their children safe by keeping guns out of the home, by reducing the access of children and teenagers to guns in the home, by turning them in if they find a gun - turning the gun in if they find a gun in the teenager's possession. These are all measures that every family can take today that we don't have to wait for the politicians.
MARTIN: And finally, we only have about 40 seconds left. But I do want to emphasize again, which you said, with young children this tended to be accidents. But with older children, 15 to adolescence, 15 to 19-year-olds, tended to be assaults. What can you do about that?
SEGE: Well, I think that the availability of a gun turns an assault into a tragedy. And the one thing we can do is do a much better job of limiting the access of teenagers to weapons. We limit their access to alcohol. We limit their access to cigarettes. We can do a better job of effectively limiting their access to weapons.
MARTIN: That was Dr. Robert Sege, director of the Division of Family and Child Advocacy at Boston Medical Center, a professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. And that's where he joined us. Dr. Sege, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SEGE: Thank you very much for inviting me.
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