The Mercury News Weekend

Why aren't we warning kids about threat of guns?

- By Elisabeth Rosenthal Elisabeth Rosenthal, a physician, is editor in chief of Kaiser Health News. © 2023 Los Angeles Times. Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency.

I still remember the raspy voice of the wizened cancer patient with the hole in her throat. So addicted to the poison that was killing her — cigarettes — she interspers­ed her words of warning about the dangers of smoking with taking puffs of a cigarette through her tracheosto­my hole.

It was a short, disturbing public service video shown in my sixth grade classroom as part of an anti-smoking campaign linked to a recently released U.S. surgeon general's report, which for the first time officially linked smoking to cancer and heart disease.

That night, I flushed my father's cigarettes down the toilet. The woman's image haunted my nightmares for years. After seeing that video, I never lighted up.

Today that kind of video would probably not make it into the classroom, deemed inappropri­ate for preteens, too triggering.

But that's arguably just the kind of aggressive messaging campaign — particular­ly aimed at young people — we need right now to combat what has become the country's No. 1 public health threat for American youth: guns.

Firearms became the leading cause of death among those 19 and younger in 2020, owing to a dramatic spike in youth gun violence deaths during the pandemic. The gun homicide rate in the United

States for people ages 15-24 was already 49 times as high as in other developed nations more than a decade ago. It's a racial justice issue too. Black males 15 to 34 are more than 20 times more likely to be a victim of gun homicide than their white counterpar­ts.

Though much of the media attention surrounds mass school shootings and the proliferat­ion of semiautoma­tic weapons, handguns were used in 59% of murders and “nonneglige­nt manslaught­ers.” Most gun homicides involve the shooting of a small number of people, the “ones and twos.”

In response to rising gun violence, Congress last year passed its first gun safety measure in decades and more than 500 state gun safety measures have passed in the last decade.

But the carnage continues, and laws alone are unlikely to stop it, with gun ownership protected in some form by the 2nd Amendment and a Supreme Court that takes a broad view of what that means. The year 2020 saw the largest number of gun sales in the nation's history. Our country is supersatur­ated with weapons.

Smoking was normative in America until public health officials took it on. What allowed smoking bans in public places to gain traction was decadeslon­g public health work to reimage the cigarette — frequently and forcefully — by officials like Surgeon General C. Everett


The anti-smoking campaigns depicted the health scourge with images and language that were often deeply disturbing. That message was then echoed by public service announceme­nts featuring celebritie­s from sports and films. Research has found that such emotionall­y charged ads can work in smoking cessation.

Today we recognize guns as a public health threat. So it's time to act with the same kind of visceral public campaign that put my dad's cigarettes into the toilet.

There will, of course, be debate about whether the images of gunfire and bodies would be traumatizi­ng, especially to kids and victims' families. But some may feel differentl­y. Emmett Till's mother demanded that his body be displayed in an open coffin because “everybody needed to know what happened to Emmett Till.” Disturbing images have proved powerful in awakening public outrage and prompting action: The horrific video of George Floyd's murder lent fuel to the Black Lives Matter movement.

If we want gun violence to end, there may be little choice but to show the public the true damage of guns in all its ugliness and brutality.

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