On Aug. 28, 2008, when toddler Wyatt Matteau found his father's loaded .40-caliber pistol under a pillow in their Jewett City home and accidentally shot himself in the head, the result was predictable.
The Life Star helicopter flew him from the William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich to our Level I pediatric trauma center in Hartford, but there was nothing we could do. The memory of Wyatt's dead body in pull-ups with a gunshot wound to his head in the trauma bay of the emergency department haunts me as a gun owner, parent and surgeon.
Public health research has clearly established that unsafe storage of guns and ammunition is associated with an increased risk of suicide and unintentional gun injuries. But in communities across this state, there's been a failure to embrace the action needed to take unwanted guns out of circulation to prevent them from killing, injuring or being used in crimes.
Gun violence is different from most other serious pediatric health conditions such as cancer, in that gun injuries can be easily prevented with effective, common-sense measures. Suicide deserves special emphasis because it accounts for about half of all firearm deaths in our state, and it may be more amenable to preventive strategies than homicide.
Firearms are the method used by more than half of older teen suicide victims, and suicide attempts with a gun are more likely than other means to be successful. Lethal means restriction is a tool physicians employ with patients contemplating suicide. Guns, medications and other common "means" of suicide are removed from the home to lower the risk of suicide.
The Hartford Gun Buy-Back, which runs Saturday, last year removed from harm's way 118 unwanted working firearms, including 87 handguns from Hartford and surrounding suburbs. A buy-back program in New Haven collected 87 guns last year, including several assault rifles. A gun buy-back program offered last August in Queens, N.Y., took 509 firearms — including an AK-47. We can do much better.
In Greater Hartford, we don't embrace nearly strong enough the idea that a gun buy-back program can help. There are just not enough community leaders supporting it. They hear critics call it "feel-good" only and assail it for failing to provide measurable declines in shooting deaths. Some gun rights advocates argue that very few of the collected firearms are "crime guns" taken from criminals.
Even though gun buy-back programs have not by themselves been proven to lower the incidence of firearm violence, we still need to try and figure out ways to make them more effective. Hartford police compared handguns collected at the buy-back to "crime guns" they confiscated recently in Hartford and found the guns to be similar. The buy-back program dovetails nicely with the Hartford Police Department's Shooting Task Force that targets high-risk criminals thought to be responsible for the majority of violent crime in the city, and has confiscated about 95 guns so far this year.
However, Hartford's Gun Buy-Back program is a small collaborative, community-based public health intervention that needs the entire Hartford region to become more committed to this cause. This means police departments, local public health departments, town and city governments' elected officials, to name a few, need to join in this once-a-year effort by heavily promoting it within their communities. Politicians, who are very good with get-out-the-vote efforts, need to employ the same skills to help keep their communities safe. It is part of the tapestry — including police seizures and voluntary turn-ins year-round — that remove unwanted and potentially dangerous guns from the community.
We need only remember the potentially preventable death of Wyatt Matteau. If you have an unwanted firearm, exchange it for a gift card, so that it doesn't find its way into the hands of a child or a criminal. If you keep guns in your home, do the responsible thing and make absolutely certain they are stored safely.
Brendan T. Campbell, M.D, is pediatric surgeon and medical director of the pediatric trauma program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Connecticut residents can drop off unwanted firearms at the Community Renewal Team's office, 555 Windsor St., Hartford, in exchange for gift cards of $25 to $75.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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