To Fight the Gun Epidemic, Think Like a Parent

— Healthcare professionals know the first step to wellness begins at home

A photo of a father and son outdoors wearing ear protection as the son learns about gun safety.
Prince is a pediatric surgeon.

Each year, around Father's Day, I find myself moved by two powerful memories, one involving my father, the other my sons, and both involving guns.

The first memory is of my dad looking over me as I fired a .22 caliber rifle as a teenager for the first time. It isn't lost on me what that must have meant to him: it was a moral problem with which to grapple, a problem to solve. As a young man, he risked his life and lost friends as a counter-revolutionary fighting Fidel Castro's oppressive regime in his native Cuba, and he harbored no illusions about what happens when very bad men take up arms. But he spent his entire adult life as a sociologist and a diplomat, fiercely dedicated to the idea that peace and freedom were attainable and defensible by other, non-violent means. It was this complicated history that underscored why he wanted me to know how to handle a firearm, but also to understand their devastating power and why it ought to be curbed.

My second memory is much more visceral, and it involves my boys, now 18 and 16. A few years ago, I was at the hospital, preparing for another shift as a pediatric surgeon, when the phone buzzed, informing me that my children were on lock-down in school due to an active shooter situation. Words cannot capture the sheer, abject terror I felt, the rage and the fear and the helplessness. Nor could they eloquently capture the maddening and surreal experience of speaking to your children and advising them on what they ought to do if someone pulls out a gun in class. It's a horror no parent should ever experience. Sadly, it is a reality we drill for as the largest pediatric trauma center in New York State.

As I reflect on how guns helped me understand my role as both a father and a son, an obvious question comes to mind: What now? How can we effectively fight America's gun epidemic, and help save lives needlessly lost to gun violence?

It's obviously a complex question, and it calls for intricate and multilayered solutions. But one above all resonates: We can only begin to solve this problem if we think not like partisans or activists or advocates but like parents.

The moment we welcome our first child into the world, we learn that being a parent means having to grapple with complicated realities and having to come to terms with the fact that, no matter how hard you try, you can never completely shelter your children from any harm or malice. This means that our best bet is to give our kids a solid understanding of the reality they'll face when they leave home, and to raise them with values that will help them leave the world they meet outside a bit better than they found it.

According to the most recently available statistics, there are currently more than 400 million firearms in circulation in the U.S. Couple this with an abundance of ammunition, and the gun violence pandemic has plenty of material to sustain it. So, while good and responsible policies help and are essential, so is education.

This brings me back to my father. As much as he chose to put down his guns, and as fiercely as he believed that violence could never bring about anything but misery and suffering, he understood my developing a facility with firearms because he wanted me to treat them responsibly, not as something to celebrate carelessly or fear unreservedly. He wanted me to see them as powerful objects calling out for strong precautions. It is why, as a father, I too have taught my sons about firearm safety through the Boy Scouts but have chosen not to have a gun in our home.

There is much we, as healers and parents, can do to deliver a similar message unequivocally. For those who choose to keep guns in the home, responsible gun ownership requires that guns are stored safely. Shockingly, a 2016 survey found that only 25% of Americans stored all their guns unloaded and locked, which is why we're faced with tragic headlines every so often about a child who found a weapon lying around the house with disastrous consequences. Tragedies like these are easy to avoid.

Storage, however, is just the first step. Anyone who has access to a firearm must receive comprehensive training on how to operate it, as well as recurring and insistent emphasis on safety. Just as we spend considerable time talking to our children about precautions before getting behind the wheel when they're old enough to drive, any parent with a firearm in the home must be diligent in talking to them about responsible shooting.

If we can do that -- if we can take the conversation away from merely digging our heels into an extremely pro- or anti-gun position and demonizing anyone who doesn't agree with us -- we would go a long way toward beginning to address the actual problem at hand. Sure, there's much the government can do, on both the Federal and local level, to help curb this epidemic. But as any good doctor -- and dad -- will tell you, the first step to wellness begins at home.

Jose Prince, MD, is surgeon in chief of Cohen Children's Medical Center, at Northwell Health in New York.