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Opinion: A emergency pediatrician on why a law on safe storage of guns would save young lives

If a child comes to my ER having swallowed a bottle of Tylenol, I can give them medicine to help undo the harm. I couldn’t undo the bullet sitting in my 13-year-old patient's brain.

As a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children’s Hospital Colorado, I witness tragedy every day.

Firearm injuries are the second leading cause of death in kids and are some of the most gut-wrenching cases we see in the ER. And when you combine a suicide attempt with a gun, the devastation is unbearable. Over half of completed suicides involve firearms, despite accounting for less than 5% of the means of attempted suicide.

Sindhu Sudanagunta

That’s why Children’s Hospital Colorado supports House Bill 1106, which is currently pending before the Colorado state Senate and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 1.

If passed into law, the bill would limit children’s access to guns and in doing so, decrease the number of lives lost.

There is a myth that suicide is the result of long and thoughtful contemplation about life and death. Studies debunk this with the finding that almost half of people who attempt suicide do so within the first 10 minutes of a suicidal thought. Over 90% of those who survive a suicide attempt will not go on to die from suicide later. 

This points to the understanding that suicidal impulses are usually a short-lived and hasty response to an overwhelming moment, even in the face of underlying psychiatric conditions.

I frequently see children in the emergency room who have attempted suicide, and I know not all attempts are equally lethal.

Just recently an ambulance brought me a 13-year-old boy. Let’s call him James (not his real name). He arrived at the ER after a suicide attempt with his father’s handgun. He had dark hair and brown eyes that looked straight ahead, glassy and unblinking. 

The EMS team held blood-soaked gauze over his temple. His heart was still beating when he came to me — slowly, but still beating. Our team responded quickly. I placed a tube in his mouth to have a machine breathe for him. The nurse started a blood transfusion to replenish what he was losing. We put him on medication to strengthen his heartbeat. 

Eventually, I had to peel back the gauze and assess the damage. I knew at once that James would not be leaving the hospital.

One in three U.S. households contain at least one firearm. But only three in 10 households with kids and firearms store the firearms safely

HB 1106 aims to prevent stories like James’ by requiring safe and responsible gun storage. Licensed gun dealers would also need to provide a locking device with all sales and transfers. And the state public health department would have to share information about safe storage.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

If a child comes to the ER having swallowed a bottle of Tylenol, I can give them medicine to help undo the harm. I couldn’t, on the other hand, undo the bullet sitting in James’ brain.

Firearm-related tragedies can be prevented with safety innovations, continued research, and thoughtful policy. We have the research and the safe storage innovations; now all we’re waiting on is this policy. 

Please contact your senator to urge their support of HB 1106.


Sindhu Sudanagunta is an emergency medicine pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado.


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