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America’s appalling reality: we don’t care about our children

If we did, maybe we wouldn’t be content to let them die at greater rates than children in Spain or Slovenia or England or Estonia.

People attending a candlelight vigil on Thursday for victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

We don’t care about our children in this country. Not really.

If we cared about our children, a baby born in the United States wouldn’t have a 76 percent greater risk of dying before their first birthday than one born in other wealthy, democratic countries.

If we cared about our children, a child aged 1 to 19 wouldn’t have a 57 percent greater risk of dying before adulthood than elsewhere in the developed world.

And if we cared about our children, when we heard that UNICEF had ranked us 26 out of 29 developed countries (higher than only Lithuania, Latvia and Romania) with respect to overall child health and safety, we would feel a collective shame and rush into action to fix the situation.

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But we don’t really care about our children. We continue to be content to let them die at greater rates than children in Spain or Slovenia or England or Estonia. 

Indeed, babies born in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from complications related to an early birth and twice as likely to die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) than those born in other Western countries.

Yet, we’re not bothered by those deaths. Instead of doing everything we can to help women — particularly those living on low incomes — have healthy pregnancies and care for their newborn babies, we make it difficult, if not outright impossible, for them to access quality health care or to have paid pregnancy and maternity leave or to live in safe, healthy environments.

And if we don’t care about our babies, we certainly don’t care about older children. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers, and our teens are twice as likely to die as the result of a car crash than adolescents in most other developed countries. We don’t talk much about those deaths, however, and, unlike other nations we don’t seem to feel any sense of urgency about them. In fact, our motor vehicle fatality rate is now 40 percent higher than that of Canada and Australia, two other large countries with lots of roads and cars. 

Even Slovenia has made better progress at reducing traffic fatalities than us. As David Leonhardt noted in the New York Times last November, “The comparison with Slovenia is embarrassing. In 1990, its death rate was more than five times as high as ours. Today, the Slovenians have safer roads.”

And then there’s gun violence. It’s all too clear by now that we don’t really care about keeping our children safe from being shot. If we did, then we would have taken actions long, long ago to prevent tragedies like Wednesday’s horrific mass murder at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Instead, we accept the unremitting gun carnage against our children. School shootings are a “uniquely American” phenomenon, as a BBC reporter explained to its British viewers the morning after the Parkland shooting, yet we don’t seem to be troubled by that description — or by the relentlessness of such tragedies. Here, as I’ve reported before, is the appalling reality that results from our disinterest in the relationship between guns and our children’s safety: 

Each year, nearly 1,300 children aged 0 to 17 in the United States — more than three a day — die from gunshot wounds. Another 5,790 are treated each year for gunshot-related injuries, wounds that leave many of the children disabled for life. 

And those numbers are probably underestimates.

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The situation is so grim that firearm-related deaths — homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings — are now the third-leading cause of death overall among American children. More children in the United States die from gunshot wounds than from birth defects, heart disease, influenza and/or pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases (including asthma) and stroke.

Firearm-related deaths are also now the second-leading cause of injury-related deaths among children. Only motor vehicles claim more of these lives.

Indeed, 10 percent of all deaths among children aged 0 to 17 are the result of gun injuries. 

The American Medical Association has called gun violence “a public health crisis,” one that’s “unrivaled in any other country.” And the American Academy of Pediatrics believes the “the most effective way to reduce firearm-related injuries and death is to keep guns out of homes and communities.” 

Unintentional gunshot wounds alone — ones that result from accidents — claim 10 times more children’s lives in the United States than in other developed countries.

Yet Congress refuses to pass legislation to tighten laws on gun sales and ownership. Congress even refuses to fund federal gun-related health research to help find ways of reducing gun deaths and injuries. 

Compare our inaction with what the Australians did. After a man with a gun went on a rampage in one of its cities in 1996, killing 35 people, Australia tightened its gun laws. It hasn’t experienced another mass shooting since.

Seventeen people, including 14 children, died in the Parkland school gun massacre on Wednesday, a tragedy difficult to fathom. But the bloodbath doesn’t end there. Many more children across the country will die from gunshot wounds this week and next week and in the weeks after that.

And we do nothing.