A Question of Value

July 22, 2013

The killing of Trayvon Martin was not an isolated incident of violence.

On the 8th day of January, my daughter told me that a 17-year-old boy, known by most of her friends, had been shot and killed a few days before in Oakland. She said that this was the second death in her peer group since the beginning of the New Year just 8 days earlier.

Two months ago my daughter’s friend called her at 3 a.m. to tell her that there had been a shooting at a house party after the prom. My daughter reassured me that she and her friend would never have gone to a house party in that section of Oakland because there are so many shootings.

Every year that my son was in his small Oakland public high school, students came to school mourning the death of a relative or friend who had been killed, some wearing T-shirts with memorial dates and photos. The 10-year-old brother of one of his classmates was “accidently” killed in a drive-by shooting.

We live in Oakland where there is an epidemic of gun violence. For youth it is common to know many teens or children who have been killed. This is especially true for our African-American and Latino youth.

Our youth are not apathetic, but they are in despair. Even my daughter, a high school student who is committed to making the world a better place, could not imagine anything that would change the risk of death to our youth through gun violence.

In the national and local debates and questions and hand-wringing, as we agonize over the Sandy Hook and other mass shootings, as we respond to the killing of Trayvon Martin, it is easy to feel that everything has been said. It is easy to feel helpless and hopeless, without power, marginalized, and alone. And yet each of us actually has something important to add in this time.

Each life begins through a series of chances. Somehow, our reproductive cells find each other, combine, and gradually evolve into a human life which is capable of living in the world. Because humans are born helpless, and remain so for a long time, the infant must have every need supplied. It is many years before a child can even take a bowl of cereal and milk from the kitchen without assistance.

Humans are pack animals. It is thought that we originally bonded with each other into community because of the specialized needs of our helpless infants, and the inability of just one mother to care for the infant while providing all the food and safety for the pair. Over a long time, each group developed into its own culture, but in every culture, care for the young is central.

Here in the United States, we encompass a multiplicity of cultures. There are, however, “American” characteristics which underlie collective ideas and values. As an American culture, we value the rights of the individual, and have a long tradition, a mythology rich with storytelling, which asserts that an individual who works hard can become successful on his/her own. With these assumptions, come others, less positive, about the meaning of needing help, or being cared for by the community. The common good can be less important than the desires and achievement of the individual. There can be the sense that if a person is struggling, financially or personally, it is because of personal weakness. It is possible to turn away from problems such as homelessness, poverty, ill health, and violent death, without seeing the faces of those affected as being essentially the same as our own.

In this setting, care for the lives of the young, evolutionarily the highest priority in any social group, has become secondary. As a society, we have turned away from protecting the lives of our youth, choosing instead to direct our attention and funding to protecting the right to own firearms. The point is that we are prioritizing the privileges of gun ownership over our responsibility to safeguard the lives of the next generation.

Looking at statistics from one year (data from the Center for Disease Control) in 2010, there were 2,315 deaths from firearms (excluding legal intervention) in the 15–19-year-old age group (1564 homicides and 668 suicides, 72 “unintentional”). In the same time period, there were 369 firearm deaths in children ages 1–14 years. Firearm deaths in all age groups (excluding legal intervention) were 31,328 in just that one year.

Studies show that people who have firearms at home are at greater risk for both suicide and homicide. Whereas unsuccessful suicide attempts use other methods, a person using a firearm to commit suicide is much more likely to die. Proponents of gun ownership often say that it makes them safer at home, however studies show that gun ownership does not keep homeowners safe from criminals. Instead, guns in the home are often kept where children can get them, causing death by accident, suicide, and homicide. The guns used at Sandy Hook were taken from home.

Legal gun prevalence is a large contributor to illegal gun violence. In the Youth Gun Violence Fact Sheet published by the National Association of School Psychologists, a 2003 study is cited which states that 80% of school-related homicides and suicides related to firearms used guns taken from the home of a relative or a friend. Three of the weapons used at the Columbine massacre were bought legally from a private dealer at a gun show by an 18-year-old friend, and given to the 17-year-old shooters.

It has become increasingly difficult even to do the studies relating to firearms and public health, because public health funding has been cut for this purpose. My medical school classmate, Dr. Garen Wintemute, a noted researcher on this topic, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to fund his research. 

It is fundamentally a question of value. What is the worth of a human life? How much is this one life worth to the mother, the father, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends? How can anyone know what contribution will be made in the fullness of that life, what would be lost to the world without its fulfillment?


What if Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed at the age of 18? Why is there so much shock about incidents of mass shooting, yet there is silence about the daily loss of life in so many of our communities? Why don’t we recognize that “your child” is to you what “my child” is to me? And aren’t we each some mother’s child?

I can’t let this go. I am a mother who cares for the life in my care. I am a physician whose care is for all life. I am part of the community of people, and it is given to us that we raise the next generation.

So I ask you to consider your priorities. Why is it more important to be allowed to have a gun than to preserve the lives of our children? Why should anyone be allowed to have a gun without a background check, attending a gun safety class and providing proof of a locked gun safe at home? Why aren’t guns manufactured with safety locks that open only to the licensed owner? How do we take away the enormous number of illegal guns that are easily available to youth? Why should the National Rifle Association’s money and influence dictate laws encouraging the proliferation and use of guns with fewer and fewer restrictions and safety concerns?

Send a message to President Obama that you support him in asking for new research and funding related to prevention of gun violence. Demand background checks for any gun buyer. If you live in a state with a “Stand Your Ground” law, work for its repeal and instead teach people to retreat from confrontation. Ask your local police to develop problem-oriented initiatives which address the culture of gun violence as well as its prevention. Don’t turn away from vulnerable youth. Join with others in your community to insist on zero tolerance for dead children.

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