Mental health funds included in the new act may not be enough to prevent mass tragedies.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law on June 25. It calls for more extensive background checks for potential gun owners under the age of 21 and imposes harsher penalties against “straw purchasers” – those who buy a firearm with the purpose of selling it to someone who is not authorized to own one. The act, signed into law by Democratic President Joe Biden, also includes $60 million in funds over the next five years for mental health training for pediatricians (doctors who specifically treat children and young adults) in order to attempt to cut down on mass shootings. A Whitehouse aide Katherine Hoops, MD, MPH, clarified that the mental health portion is broadly written in order for doctors to implement them as they see it.
In a June 22 statement, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) President Moira Szilagyi, MD, PhD, FAAP, said, “Pediatricians have long been advocating for federal policies that will keep children, families, and communities safe. This bill would help work toward that goal by encouraging state red flag laws, improving background checks, and limiting instantaneous sales of assault weapons to 18- to 20-year-olds.”
“We see this as a vital and important resource for the care we are already providing,” said Hoops, an assistant professor of pediatric critical care medicine and a core faculty member for the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. “Right now, a majority of pediatric mental health is being done by primary care providers. Providing more resources for clinicians, for pediatricians, for primary care providers to improve the provision of mental health counseling and risk-based counseling is potentially very beneficial.”
However, experts say that the new act, in itself, will not prevent mass shooting that have, unfortunately, gained in popularity in recent years. Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among children living in the U.S., government data shows. “In 2020, 4357 persons aged 1 to 19 years died from a gun-related injury, more than the number for auto accidents (3913), suffocation (1411), or drowning (966),” records reveal.
“There’s no evidence that strengthening pediatric mental health services will prevent mass shootings,” said Amy Barnhorst, MD, vice chair for community mental health at the University of California, Davis, Department of Psychiatry.
Barnhorst explained that mass shootings represent no more than 1% of annual gun fatalities in the country and there is no set criteria for nailing down a criminal profile that might help prevent them. She mentioned that she believes “red flag laws” are more successful in protecting the public against tragedy. These are court orders to remove guns from people in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.
“Youth are more likely to die in a homicide or suicide or by unintentional injury than a fatal mass shooting,” Hoops said, adding that accidental shootings also continue to be a major issue. “All of these are preventable deaths, and all are important to prevent.”