In January 2022, gun manufacturer WEE1 Tactical revealed the JR-15 rifle, an AR-15 style rifle marketed for children that is smaller and lighter than its adult counterpart. Its introduction raises significant concerns about the safety and well-being of children.
Gun Violence Is a Growing Issue
Firearm deaths have emerged as a critical public health crisis in the U.S. In 2020, for the first time ever, firearms surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death of U.S. children and maintained that status in 2021. The CDC reported increases in firearm homicide rates by nearly 35% from 2019 to 2020, and 8.3% from 2020 to 2021. In 2021, there were an estimated 20,966 firearm homicide deaths and 26,320 firearm suicide deaths reported. From 2019 to 2020, rates of firearm homicides also surged for young children, increasing 41% for ages 10 and under, and increasing 38.5% for 10-24-year-olds. Firearm suicide rates also increased 14.7% in 10-24-year-olds during this period. In 2021 alone, 236 children ages 5-14 years and 3,590 15-24-year-olds died by suicide using a firearm, the highest numbers reported since 2018.
School shootings have also escalated, reaching a staggering 305 incidents in 2022, which is more than five times higher than 2017. The number of casualties in U.S. school shootings is also on the rise, increasing substantially from 24 deaths in 2020 to 66 deaths in 2022. These deaths are a public health crisis that cannot be ignored.
The Problem With Marketing to Kids
There are significant concerns about marketing a lethal weapon to children. The human brain develops in a back-to-front fashion, and the front region — the seat of impulse control and emotional regulation — matures last, typically in the mid- to late-twenties. This causes decision-making skills to reach maturity at different ages. One study found that cognitive skills mature by age 16, while psychosocial skills (risk perception, sensation seeking, impulsivity, resistance to peer pressure, future orientation) do not fully mature until ages 26-30. By age 16, adolescents are cognitively mature but psychosocially immature — this means they are capable of making adult-level decisions in situations where the reasoned decision making has minimal social-emotional influences. Adolescents are likely to make immature decisions in situations eliciting impulsivity, those with high levels of emotional arousal, those where there is social coercion, and in situations that don’t involve adult/expert consultation. When young people are thinking about suicide or harming others with firearms, therefore, it is likely they may make these decisions without logical reflection, without adult consultation, and without considering the risks of their actions because the brain pathways involved in these skills are underdeveloped. This disparity in brain development makes it unreasonable to expect children/teenagers to make adult-level decisions regarding firearms.
WEE1 Tactical appears to be relying on caregivers to monitor use of the JR-15 rifle, sharing in a statement that the gun is a “youth training rifle” to be bought by adults who want to introduce “hunting and shooting sports to the next generation of responsible gun owners.” But research has shown that kids and young teens report being able to access household firearms even if their caregiver does not think they can. Additionally, one study found that only about one third of U.S. gun owners with children in the home stored their firearms appropriately. Further research shows that a significantly higher rate of pediatric firearm injuries and suicides occur using household firearms.
WEE1 Tactical reports that the JR-15 rifle has a “patented safety switch” that requires “strength and dexterity to release.” However, to my knowledge no rigorous studies have demonstrated this safety switch’s effectiveness in preventing a child from firing the JR-15 rifle. Some children may be able to overcome the safety switch to gain full access to the firearm. As we have seen over the past year in multiple school shootings, relying on caregivers to monitor the use of deadly weapons does not appear adequate to prevent the inevitable harm firearms may cause.
Implications for State Gun Laws
State gun laws will be critically implicated if assault-style guns built for children are sold in the U.S. Some states with permissive, non-evidence-based gun laws already have serious problems with pediatric firearm-related mortality. Missouri is one such example, and I have published research evaluating the impact of Missouri’s sequential loosening of gun laws on adolescent suicide by firearms. Recently, the Republican-led Missouri legislature voted against a bill banning minors from openly carrying firearms on public land without adult supervision, which, I believe sends a message that it is a legislative overreach to mandate parents supervise their children when their child handles a firearm. This type of legislative voting coupled with the introduction of the lightweight, assault-style guns for children will likely worsen the pediatric firearm death crisis in states like Missouri where legislators refuse to pass evidence-based gun laws that could prevent such tragic deaths.
What Can Be Done?
Democratic Senators have requested that the Federal Trade Commission investigate whether it is permissible to market deadly weapons to children. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also introduced the Protecting Kids from Guns Marketing Act, which would create rules prohibiting certain marketing of firearms to minors. Illinois is working to pass similar legislation. Additionally, 10 U.S. states have enacted bans on assault weapons, which would prohibit the sale of AR-15 style rifles. But legislative action can take time. In the meantime, clinicians can provide firearm safety counseling and advocate for evidence-based legislation, which may help address the firearm-death public health crisis.
Firearm safety counseling
Providing firearm safety counseling may mitigate the effects of the JR-15. I have already written about how clinicians can talk to at-risk adolescents and their families about guns. The Be SMART campaign offers a framework that parents and caregivers can use to promote responsible gun ownership to keep their children and communities safe. The BulletPoints Project teaches clinicians how to counsel about firearms.
It is important to counter any misconception that clinicians are “not allowed” to talk about guns with their patients. In Missouri, I gave a grand rounds presentation on youth suicide where I asked my audience, “Can healthcare workers in Missouri ask patients about firearms?” The majority of my audience reported “No, because there’s a gag rule.” Anticipating this possibility, I discussed Missouri’s statute describing a clinician’s role in asking at-risk patients about firearms. Knowing your state gun laws and providing firearm safety counseling are actionable steps we must take.
Advocating for evidence-based gun laws
Advocating for evidence-based gun legislation is another crucial measure. Child access prevention laws (which evidence suggests reduce firearm suicides, violent crimes, and unintentional deaths), emphasize parental responsibility in firearm safety and hold them accountable for firearm-related injuries/deaths their children cause. Additionally, innovative laws like California’s Assembly Bill 1594, which empowers victims of gun violence to file lawsuits against the gun industry when it fails to follow the state’s strict gun laws and harm ensues, provide recourse for victims of firearm violence.
The promoted safety mechanisms of the JR-15 rifle do not appear sufficient to prevent the possibility of harm, and its introduction to the U.S. market has the potential to worsen pediatric firearm injuries and deaths. Clinicians must provide firearm safety guidance and advocate for evidence-based legislation to protect children and adolescents from firearm-related harm.
Apurva Bhatt, MD, is a child/adolescent and adult psychiatrist.
Source link : https://www.medpagetoday.com/opinion/second-opinions/106206
Publish date : 2023-09-06 14:12:33
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