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Child Watch® Column: "Listen to the Children"

Release Date: March 22, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

“My friends are dead. I saw the bad man. He was next to me
when we ran out.”

“I played ball with him. Now he is dead.”
“My friend got killed cause she didn’t hide good enough.”
“Do you think it is my fault?”

These are some of the devastating voices of children from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Elaine Zimmerman, the executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, joined by others, has been offering support to children and families in Newtown, Connecticut since the shootings at their school in December 2012. She shared these quotes at a recent Harvard Graduate School of Education Askwith Forum where she, PBS NewsHour correspondent and Learning Matters president John Merrow, and I participated in a panel on school violence. Less than two percent of fatal gun violence against children takes place at school, but everyone’s heart broke with Elaine’s as she told the audience, “I am haunted by the child who said, ‘There is nothing you can do or say that will convince me that this will not happen again.’

Although many children in the school building and school system were not physically hurt on December 14th, all these children and their siblings were also victims of the horrific violence that day. They carry an enormous burden and are paying an incalculable price that may never disappear. It’s the same price paid by children fifty miles away in Hartford’s North End—though the gun violence there and in inner cities across the country does not always make headlines, adding another layer of anger and frustration about feeling invisible on top of the Black community’s already deep pain. From rural Southern communities to small Midwestern towns, child and adult survivors of gun violence all over America pay a high price every day. The psychological and emotional toll of gun violence on bystanders, victims, and families can be overwhelming and leaves effects that last for years.

What about the costs we can count? In addition to the trauma that is so deep and pervasive that it is harder to quantify, there are actual costs to gun violence that can be measured and are enormous. Victims and families often find themselves paying a high economic price while struggling with the emotional one, and other taxpayers share the economic burden.

A recent study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that gun injuries and deaths in 2010 cost the country $8.4 billion in medical and mental health care, emergency services, and administrative and criminal justice costs. Those shot and killed and their families and employers were estimated to have lost $52.5 billion in forgone wages and productivity due to death or injury. This adds up to a total of $60.8 billion, twenty percent of which was borne by local, state and federal governments. On top of these costs to the victims, their families, employers and taxpayers, the researchers also estimated the economic value of the pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life among those shot and their families to total an additional $113.3 billion. This gives a sense of the magnitude of the loss experienced by those killed or injured and their families. Together all these costs add up to $174.1 billion a year, a little over one percent of our nation’s gross national product. This is an average of $1.7 million in one year for each of the 105,177 gun deaths and injuries that occurred in 2010. And even this number is an underestimate. It does not count the larger toll and economic impact of gun violence on entire communities, including lower housing values, lost property tax revenue, and lost quality of life due to fear of violence.

The lost quality of life is the price Sandy Hook’s children are paying right now, along with every other child in America who has seen gun violence in their own neighborhood, their own street, or their own home. The 2008 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found that more than one in five 14-17 year olds had witnessed a shooting at some point in their lives. This number is thought to be even higher among low-income children: one study found that 43 percent of low-income Black school-aged children had witnessed a murder. Behind those children are millions more who have seen pieces of news stories on television or passed armed guards or policemen at their school and wonder whether the grown-ups they know will ever be able to protect them and keep them safe. There is nothing you can do or say that will convince me that this will not happen again.

A December 2012 report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence found that exposure to violence takes an enormous emotional toll on children with effects including difficulty sleeping and eating, irritability, attention and concentration problems, aggression, depressed mood and withdrawal, relationship problems, anxiety and intrusive thoughts, and impulsivity (which includes dangerous risk-taking, alcohol and drug abuse, delinquency, and promiscuous sexual behavior). The task force also reported that chronic violence can lead to long-lasting changes in brain anatomy and physiology, including long-term psychiatric problems and lifelong limitations on health, well-being, relationships, and personal success.

It’s not fair. Our whole country and our nation’s economy bear the financial burden caused by gun violence. Survivors and family members pay the highest price of all. No one should be forced to pay a lifelong emotional or physical toll because a fit of anger, an episode of depression or other mental illness, or a careless accident ended with a gunshot. No child deserves to have their childhood snatched away in an instant and their life changed forever because of an adult’s decision to carry and use guns, including high-powered assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips.

Listen to the children. The costs of gun violence in America are far too high for them and for all of us. They are a price none of us can afford and none of us, especially our children, should be forced to pay. It is past time to protect children, not guns.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by vicki at: May 10, 2013
I am committed to safe gun legislation, and have written letters to the editor, contacted congressmen/women, etc. I'm on a pension, so donating money is not feasible, but as a retired teacher...I can talk and write!

Submitted by Anonymous at: April 2, 2013
very important

Submitted by lee at: March 27, 2013
I am a director of Latino Community center that works with children in southwest detroit and every child has experienced some kind of trauma in there little lifetime. We are dealing with children that are becoming candidates for PTSD. Children that have seen things and have there parents traumatized in front of them. I deal with children from k-8 and older siblings.We need to teach them conflict resolution and how to prepare them for crisis.

Submitted by MT at: March 25, 2013
There will always been thugs and those with Mental Health issues who will manage to get guns. Taking all guns off the street is not the answer necause those who follow the law will be without and those who do not abide with the laws will always have the upper hand. I also do not believe that 1 out of 5 14-17 years olds have witnessed a murder. Check out your information!

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 24, 2013
Listen to the children now! Protect children not guns. Let's take our streets, our homes and our country back. Let's take action now. Children first. Always.

Submitted by Melissa S. Martin at: March 24, 2013
Children deserve to be children. They should live in loving homes and attend safe schools. Violence has no place in a child's life. I am an early childhood educator and would like to help your cause. Melissa S. Martin,MAE 270.543.3327

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 23, 2013
Thanks for publishing this information about the cost of violence that guns can cause. But behind the guns are the people who have been wounded to the point that they lash out in this manner. The question left unaddressed as we fight for gun control is where is the killing of others to express our pain, anger, hopelessness, territoriality, power-over coming from. What about our movies, our news, our mindsets about war? It seems that we are movies more and more violent everyday. We sit in front of TVs drilling violence and killing into our minds, filling our homes with that energy, our thoughts, our imaginations. Why are we so titillated by it? I suspect 90% of the problems presented in movies are solved by killing in the most dramatic ways possible. What about movies where it is equally thrilling to find a peaceful solution to a problem instead of blowing each other up? It will help to a degree to control access to weapons that are made for war, but what do we do to stop the filling our heads with killing to solve our problems?

Submitted by KGKressley at: March 23, 2013
Thank you for this powerful testimony.

Submitted by peacemaker at: March 23, 2013
I find it deplorable and disturbing that our federal legislators are so tied to the NRA and gun toters that the safety of innocent people is less important.

Submitted by cbailey56 at: March 23, 2013
Guns dont kill people, but guns do in the wrond hands

Submitted by Children's Burial Assistance at: March 23, 2013
A few days ago in Atlanta, two teenagers were attempting to Rob a mother as she and her 18 month old baby were taking a walk. The teen robbers demanded money and when she frantically replied - "I have no money" - the teens shot her baby point blank in the head and fled. I hear the cries from parents mourning the loss of their children daily, I see these little ones as they lay still in their caskets. My heart aches with pain for the parents and family. And now wealthy gun-carry citizens, high power lobbyist, and the good-old Americans who want to fight for their right to bare arms. They want to place guns in the hands of irresponsible adults and teens. How many more children have to be murdered, commit suicide with Dad's gun he keeps in the closet, or accidentally kills a friend while showing off a rifle he got for Christmas? I pray one day soon my organization, Children's Burial Assistance, will no longer be needed.

Submitted by ekadu moses at: March 23, 2013
thank you so much for the work that you are doing for the children may God bless you so much , zion childrens' foundation uganda soroti (zicfan-uganda) needs your help too i would like to thank you for always sending me your messages and i have liked them so much

Submitted by Laureate1 at: March 23, 2013
I have followed and been inspired by the wisdom of Marian Wright (Edelman)for all of my adult life !! I agree, as a liifetime educator, that some of the most beautiful expressions of simple but eloquent wisdom come from the voices of our children !!! Through the voices of our children, we will begin to learn to live through the voices of non-violence and will learn how to become Gandhi's "....good citizens of the world !!" And we will learn the meanings, as well ,of MLK's wisdom when he told us that ".....our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that (really) matter!!"

Submitted by bonpidge at: March 23, 2013
How true this all is, but will we have the passion and will to do something about it?

Submitted by Ian at: March 23, 2013
Indeed, we must listen to the children. They hardly ever outlive traumas that have unnecessarily affected them. HOWEVER, let us not forget the children in Gaza, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and so many other countries. They also suffer irreparable harm, but they are easily forgotten. We are very much involved in their suffering, and, ultimately, we will be found wanting.

Submitted by tess at: March 23, 2013
Violence will not stop unless we continue allow others to make guns. Let's fight for peace and make the world a better place to love for our children. Turn guns into plowsheers.

Submitted by Pat at: March 23, 2013
This was both a very touching and informative article that addresses the ongoing trauma of children who are a party to gun violence but not injured physically as well as revealing the price we are really paying. I hope every legislator reads this article.

Submitted by justcyndie at: March 22, 2013
I always know Child Watch will give me a great opinion on our scary times...Thank you Marion Edelman Wright!

Submitted by Gwyn at: March 22, 2013
Thank you for your thoughtful essays. Why is it so HARD to convince the "other side"? Why are they so afraid to let go of their guns?

Submitted by Deb at: March 22, 2013
Mrs. Edelman voices my feelings far better than I can. I feel every child has a right to a good education, free from fear of violence, including bullying. Each child has a right to be respected, to have good healthcare, nutritious meals, good teachers, good schools. Our children are our future.