04/03/2013 04:54 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2013

Save the Children

As horrific as the Sandy Hook mass killings were, they do not come close to telling the whole story about gun violence in our country, especially as it is affecting our children and young people.

While the nation feverously debates banning semi-automatic rifles and establishing universal federal background checks for gun purchases, our children are dying at an alarming rate, not by assault weapons, but by less exotic fire arms, most of them easily accessible in our homes.

American gun violence is a public health problem of epidemic proportions that is killing our children, destroying families, and inflicting awful and permanent damage on its survivors. Many more young people are injured annually by firearms than those who are diagnosed with cancer each year (20,000 v. 13,000, respectively) and the death rates for both are comparable (2,600 v. 3,200 respectively).

Put another way, firearms kill about 8 young people each day. That's a death every three hours, about the time it takes to buy popcorn and watch a movie in a theatre.

According to a Princeton University report, firearms are the second leading cause of death among young people ages to 10 to 19. Only motor vehicle accidents claim more young lives. The majority of youth gun deaths are not mass killings but rather homicides. Many others are accidental, many in our homes.

Equally alarming is that a third are suicides.

Youth suicides often occur during a very brief period of acute impulsivity, deaths that studies demonstrate mostly likely would have been prevented if the victims had not had easy access to firearms.

I have had first hand experience of this suicide impulsivity as a college administrator. In one instance, a highly successful, three-sport college athlete, having just had lunch with one of her parents, returned to her family's home where she took her own life with a rifle that was kept unlocked underneath a bed. In another instance, a senior, who just that day had been admitted to his first choice law school, drove to a gun shop where he asked the clerk to show him a shotgun. When the clerk walked away, the student loaded it and killed himself on the spot.

In both instances, I was struck by how determined they seemed and how each death occurred during a very brief period of psychological crisis, as if they were compelled by an uncontrollable urge or sudden change in their bio-chemistry.

The Harvard Public School of Health (HPSH) cites an Australian study, which reports that 40% of those who attempted (and survived a suicide attempt) took action within five minutes of deciding to attempt.

HPSH also reports studies which show that access to firearms are a risk factor for suicides and that young people who die by suicide are twice as likely to have a gun at home than those who survive a suicide attempt.

In response to a very high suicide rate among the adolescent members of the Israeli Defense Forces, a suicide prevention program was put into place that prohibited adolescent soldiers from taking their firearms with them during their weekend leaves. Following the policy change, suicide rates decreased by 40%.

Both research and our own common sense tells us that suicide attempts with firearms are almost always fatal and the risk of suicide fatalities increases when guns are accessible and decreased when they are not.

The gun deaths of America's young people are a public health crisis of enormous dimension and consequence. So, too, are its costs, estimated by the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado to be almost $158 billion annually.

Youth gun violence deserves more research, more resources and increased commitment, without which it will continue unabated.

Just as we have national childhood cancer awareness campaigns, so, too, should we have awareness campaigns to shine a bright light on how American gun violence cuts short the lives of young people. We need safety programs for our children as well as programs to educate parents and adults about the dangers of keeping unlocked guns in our homes.

Several years ago, I recall a public awareness campaign that encouraged parents to ask the parents of their children's friends if they had a gun in the house and if they did, was it securely locked. This is a practice worth reviving.

And as difficult as it might be to talk to each other about a topic that remains a social taboo, we also need a national conversation about the reality of youth suicide and the role that access to guns plays in this national tragedy.

It's time for the adults to cast aside our ideological differences and take a stand to save our children because their lives are in jeopardy. They really are.