Bethany Picker: Government must respond to epidemic of gun violence

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June 14 is the sixth-month anniversary of the tragic Newtown, Conn., shootings when 20 first-graders were horrifically killed at their school.

As a parent, I look at my own first-grader and marvel at what the past six months has brought: another visit from Santa, a wonderful family vacation in Florida, learning to ride a horse, taking training wheels off the bike and graduating to chapter books. Those simple pleasures of seeing a child grow are not unique to me and they should never be taken away by violence as they were in Newtown. I cannot begin to express the depth of my sadness over that event.

As a physician, I understand that gun violence has reached epidemic proportions. I do not use the word “epidemic” lightly. I do not mean that it is just common; I mean that it is pervasive and dangerous. The statistics are overwhelming.

Here are annual statistics for deaths in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control:

— 2010 AIDS deaths, 16,000;

— 2011 Drunk Driving deaths, 9,878;

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— 2009 Swine flu (H1N1) deaths, 3433;

— 2010 Deaths from guns, 31,076.

There were more deaths from guns than AIDS, drunk driving and swine flu (at its worst) put together. It is time we, as a society, do something to stop this health risk.

Sometimes in Maine, people can get lulled into thinking it is not a problem here. Gun deaths are issues for big urban communities, but not Maine.

Unfortunately, children and teens are just as likely to die from guns in rural areas as in large urban areas. In rural areas, those deaths are from suicide and unintentional shootings, while urban children are victims of homicides.

The problem with trying to intervene on the issue is that people can get distracted by the arguments on the edges. But there is a large common ground in which most people agree. Eighty-six percent of NRA and 86 percent of non-NRA member gun owners agree with the statement: “We can do more to stop criminals from getting guns while also protecting the rights of citizens to freely own them.”

Individuals who have a history of stalking, a restraining order or drug trafficking should not be allowed to buy guns.

As a physician, I am downright angered by elected officials’ inability to pass common sense gun laws, including universal background checks to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. It is time for communities to come together and demand changes to protect the children, families and neighbors.

I have seen the power of this community when it comes into action. After the fires last month, I was impressed with the support this community showed to members in need. It is now time for this community to put that same energy that was shown when responding to tragedy into preventing tragedy.

People need to speak up. They need to talk with friends and neighbors; reach out to elected officials and let them know to support action in that common middle ground most people agree on — background checks so criminals can’t get guns, getting guns off the streets whose only purpose is to kill lots of people quickly, closing loopholes in gun sales.

On average, eight children and teens under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day in this country. In the six months since the Newtown tragedy, 1,440 children have died.

If there were a virus causing eight children to die daily, the nation would demand that government agencies do something to protect the people. We must not let this be any different.

Bethany Picker, M.D., is a family physician practicing in Lewiston.

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