WASHINGTON – Consider some of the sobering statistics of gun violence in America:
Guns are the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 19, and the leading cause of death among black children and teens.
Guns kill seven children and teens daily.
Since 1963, three times more children and teens have been killed by guns on American soil than U.S. soldiers killed in wars abroad.
Against this backdrop, clergy, children’s activists and others converged on the nation’s capital Sunday for a forum and service aimed at ending the epidemic of gun violence.
The Children’s Defense Fund and the Washington National Cathedral hosted the forum, held at the cathedral, and the CDF’s 22nd annual Children’s Sabbath. (Other Children’s Sabbath services were held Sunday at hundreds of houses of worship.)
“We are here today because I believe very deeply that the greatest threat to our national security and to our children’s present and future lies within us and not outside our borders,” said Marian Wright Edelman, CDF’s president and founder, who served as the forum’s moderator. “Our children are dying in our homes, on our streets, in our schools and communities from guns.
“And this is happening in all our communities in our country, in urban, suburban and rural areas, as we’ve just experienced in our so-called secure [Washington] Navy Yard, a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., a neighborhood park in Chicago and in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. This is an all-American epidemic. And all too often, our children are the casualties.”
As Edelman and forum participants spoke, blacksmiths in front of the cathedral – in keeping with the event’s theme, “beating swords into plowshares” – pounded pieces of confiscated guns provided by the Washington, D.C., police department into garden tools.
The dean of Washington National Cathedral, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, said “our national consciousness is regularly shaken by violent outbursts that we associate with specific dates and times such as Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard.”
But Hall said we must be mindful gun violence takes place every day across the country.
“There’s an emerging moral consensus that we must take specific action to curb gun violence in our streets, in our communities,” he said.
For their part, the three physicians who participated in the forum called on the nation to view gun violence from a public health perspective.
Dr. Mark L. Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Task Force on Global Health, a nonprofit, public health organization based in Atlanta, called for a scientific approach to reducing gun violence.
Rosenberg – a former assistant U.S. surgeon general and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control – noted that an epidemic of deaths on U.S. highways in the 1960s led to redesign of automobiles and roadways, significantly reducing the number of fatalities.
He said science also must be applied to reducing gun injuries and deaths to children – by scrutinizing them, their causes and ways to prevent them.
“This is not a hopeless morass, and we can find our way out of this, and science can help us get out of this and solve the problem,” Rosenberg said, adding: “We have to be on guard that we don’t let politics and individual self-interest derail our effort. This is too important to let it be stopped.”
Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general who now serves as director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehose School of Medicine, noted that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s report on smoking and health.
Satcher urged Congress to take a public health approach to the epidemic of gun violence.
He recalled how Americans had expressed alarm over gun violence after the Columbine massacre of 1999 and last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“But unfortunately,” Satcher said, “the alarm has not lasted, and Congress has not acted, so I think the challenge we face today is how do we raise the alarm in this country about violence and guns, how do we save children’s lives and how do we educate each other? How do we protect our children [and] how do we create safe environments in which children can grow and develop?
“In order to be effective in solving public health problems, we need leaders who first care enough. We need leaders who know enough. We need leaders who have the courage to do enough. And we need to persevere until the job is done. And that’s certainly the situation with guns and violence.”
Dr. Tom McInerny, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, called for more federal research on preventing gun violence and stricter background checks for weapons purchases.
McInerny also said children should have greater access to mental health services. He said while more than 20 percent of children have mental health disorders, only about one in five of those with disorders receive mental health services.
McInerny said stronger gun laws would significantly reduce homicides, gun injuries and suicides and urged measures to reduce gun trafficking and reinstate the ban on assault weapons.
In an interview outside the cathedral, the CDF’s Edelman called gun violence and poverty – more than one in five American children lived in poverty last year – critical issues.
Standing nearby in the afternoon sunshine was Nardyne Jefferies, who came to the forum in memory of her 16-year-old daughter, Brishell Jones, who was killed in a Southeast Washington, D.C., drive-by shooting on March 30, 2010 that also killed two others and wounded six more.
Jefferies, an activist who opposes assault weapons – an AK-47 killed her daughter – said: “I advocated for my daughter in life and I want to continue to advocate for her. I never thought I’d live to see me bury my child, especially at such a young age.
“Children deserve to grow up and become adults, and adults deserve to grow into seniors. We deserve to live in a safe environment. So I’m just here to help in any way I can.”
As blacksmiths pounded parts of guns into garden tools, Jefferies said: “I think it’s beautiful. … I’m really touched, very moved to see that something that caused so much devastation can be turned into something that can cultivate a garden, make some flowers bloom, just bring some beauty to a community.”
Nearby stood Gina McDade, an activist who came to the forum from Newtown, Conn., where five residents who live near her lost children in the Sandy Hook massacre.
“I never thought about gun violence at all until it hit home,” said McDade, who now serves as director of operations for The Newtown Foundation.
The foundation, which plans a Washington vigil in December on the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, said: “We’re just looking to reduce the escalating epidemic of gun violence basically though policy and cultural change. We’re realizing that this touches everybody.”