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When Children Are Exposed To Gun Violence, It Becomes A Public Health Issue, Say St. Louis Doctors

Black semi-automatic pistol
(via Flickr/kcds)

The Newtown massacre has been seared in our collective memory. Gun violence involving teens in St. Louis, especially teens of color, is among the highest in the country.  The emotion in Roxana, Ill., after an April Fool’s prank this week put local focus on the issue. 


From school shootings to drive-bys to suicide, the level of exposure children in America today have to gun violence is in the news and on the minds of many. Because of this prevalence, some health care professionals contend that it has become a public health issue.  Among them:

  • Saaid Khojasteh, M.D. Psychiatrist; Network Associate Medical Director of Behavioral Medicine at SSM Health Care
  • David Jaffe, M.D.  Dana Brown Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, Medical Director of Emergency Services at St. Louis Children’s Hospital

As the director of emergency medicine at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, pediatrician David Jaffe sees the impact of gun violence in St. Louis firsthand.
“[In our emergency room] we see about 75 … children a year who are shot, and that averages out to more than one a week,” said Jaffe. “More than eight children a day or 3,000 a year in our country are killed. That’s twice as many as die of cancer … And so, to me, that tells us that we have a public health issue. That this is a problem that the health community needs to take a look at and to see what we can do to reduce the injuries that occur to children due to firearms.”

Psychiatrist Saaid Khojasteh of SSM Health Care also sees a need for mental health professionals to get involved.

“In assessing the mental health status of teenagers, children and teenagers, you often come across children who are disturbed and they have thoughts of self-harm or of harming others. Some of these kids are the ones who have been victims themselves of violence, bullying especially at schools or in the environment that they are living,” said Khojasteh. “Some of these kids who have access to guns or they have guns at home, parents own guns, they have had thoughts of actually using the gun, either on themselves or actually taking that and taking a so-called revenge on other kids and protecting themselves. That is very sobering. We did not used to see this two decades ago.”  

For Khojasteh, the issue goes beyond drug or gang-related shootings.

“It is proven that being a kid, a teenager or even an adult with mental health issues makes you more prone to become either a victim of gun violence or a perpetrator,” he said. “This is something new for us and I don’t think that we all as a society are ready or have been prepared to deal with this issue in our health organizations. As a psychiatrist, most of us don’t get training about this.”

In addition to training, in order to help prevent gun violence there needs to be better access to mental health care in America, said Khojasteh.

One way pediatricians could get involved is by asking parents about their children’s access to guns, said Jaffe.

“In a study they found that 25 percent of gun owners now keep their guns loaded and 40 percent keep them unlocked. So there is a lot of opportunity there to make things safer in the homes of children where there are guns. And this is an issue not only for accidental shootings … but also for suicide,” he said.

Jaffe sees gun regulation as akin to regulations put in place for driving or smoking.

“These are things where we have to compare or work with the rights of individuals and the concerns of public health. We’ve come, through research, to understand that appropriate regulation is good for the public health,” Jaffe said.

Kohjasteh stressed the importance that Missouri legislators become familiar with the research available when developing laws, noting that only five states have more children exposed to gun violence.

“I highly respect, personally myself, gun ownership in this country. I have to inform you, I am a gun owner myself. But at the same time I do have concerns about what I see on a daily basis in my practice with the kids,” Kohjasteh said.

Related Event

Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice and Vision for Children at Risk Present Safe & Sound: Smart Strategies to Protect Children from Gun Violence
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
8:30 a.m. - 12:00 Noon
UMSL's J.C. Penney Conference Center
Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice Website

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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Don Marsh served as host of St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air" from 2005 to 2019, bringing discussions of significant topics to listeners' ears at noon Monday through Friday. Don has been an active journalist for 58 years in print, radio and television. He has won 12 Regional Emmy Awards for writing, reporting, and producing. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame in 2013, and named “Media Person of the Year” by the St. Louis Press Club in 2015. He has published three books: his most recent, “Coming of Age, Liver Spots and All: A Humorous Look at the Wonders of Getting Old,” “Flash Frames: Journey of a Journeyman Journalist” and “How to be Rude (Politely).” He holds an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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