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AP Photo by Jae C. Hong / A family pays respects Thursday next to crosses bearing the names of Tuesday's shooting victims at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Firearms were the leading cause of death for children ages one and older for the first time in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The leading cause of deaths for children used to be from motor vehicle accidents.

What's more, the increase is driven largely by firearm homicides, which rose 33.4% from 2019 to 2020, according to the CDC — not from suicides, though they too increased by 1.1%.

To echo U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, "What are we doing here?"

Murphy, after the mass shooting 10 years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary in his home state, made better gun regulation his mission. And his question this week was directed at members of both the Senate and House of Representatives in the aftermath of another mass shooting in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school Tuesday. The newest shooting, by an 18-year-old who legally bought AR-style rifles just after his birthday, killed 19 fourth-graders and two teachers.

Murphy was asking his colleagues in Congress what they as national leaders are doing or not doing to stem the bloodshed. But in echoing him, we're asking ourselves, our county and our neighbors: What are we doing here?

In Tennessee, Georgia and many other states, it is increasingly easy to get a gun and carry it without a permit. That means it's increasingly easy for a child — or any or us — to get killed or maimed with a gun.

Here's the jarring nationwide statistic: Nearly two-thirds of the 4,368 U.S. children up to age 19 who were killed by guns in 2020 were homicide victims, according to the CDC. Motor vehicle crashes killed nearly 4,000 children. Another 30% of firearm-related child fatalities were suicides, 3% were accidental and 2% were of undetermined intent, per the CDC.

What are we doing — we and Congress? For one thing, too many of us are mindlessly mouthing gun proponents' oft-repeated: "Guns don't kill, people kill."

Does anyone remember the auto industry saying cars and trucks don't kill, people kill? Or the cigarette industry saying cigarettes don't make you sick, you do?

No, you don't remember absurd, dismissive statements like that. You probably do remember legislation from our lawmakers to improve vehicle safety — some at the expense of automakers and our own wallets when those seatbelt and airbag costs made their way to sticker prices. And you likely recall the government-required Surgeon General's warning on cigarettes, as well as new restrictions on the age of cigarette buyers.

But just imagine if our then-lawmakers instead had kowtowed to automakers and cigarette makers as they have with gunmakers and sellers. Imagine if automakers and tobacco companies were granted automatic immunity from lawsuits? Imagine if carmakers were never required to install seatbelts or airbags or move gas tanks around in explosion-prone vehicles. Imagine if the legal age to buy and smoke cigarettes was consistently lowered to, say, 10.

Researchers citing child and young adult gun deaths urged action in the April edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.

"As the progress made in reducing deaths from motor vehicle crashes shows, we don't have to accept the high rate of firearm-related deaths among U.S. children and adolescents," the researchers wrote.

"This change occurred because of both the rising number of firearm-related deaths in this age group and the nearly continuous reduction in deaths from motor vehicle crashes. The crossing of these trend lines demonstrates how a concerted approach to injury prevention can reduce injuries and deaths — and, conversely, how a public health problem can be exacerbated in the absence of such attention, " the researchers wrote.

The article makes another good point. Two decades ago, the CDC proclaimed the reduction in crash deaths was attributable to our country's insistence on continuous improvements in motor vehicle safety, led by the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency whose mission is to save lives and prevent road crash injuries.

There is no such thing for guns. Firearms are one of the few products whose safety isn't regulated by a designated federal agency, thanks, according to the research, to the firearm industry and gun-rights organizations.

"Although substantial federal funding has been devoted to research on motor vehicle crashes, the firearm industry and gun-rights organizations, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), have been effective at keeping federal dollars from financing firearm-related research. Between 1996 and 2019, little federal research funding was appropriated for firearm-injury prevention, owing in large part to the Dickey Amendment," the Journal article states.

The Dickey Amendment, first inserted as a rider into the 1996 United States federal government omnibus spending bill, stipulated "none of the funds" made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control.

The Journal article continues: "Unsurprisingly, researchers and policymakers know much more about the circumstances surrounding deaths from motor vehicle crashes and effective interventions for preventing traffic-related injuries and deaths than they do about firearm-related harm. Only in the past couple of years has there been a substantial increase in federal funding for firearm-related research — though not to levels commensurate with the size of the problem."

So what are we doing here, folks? Clearly, not nearly enough.

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