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Editorial: The children's crusade against gun violence

Nearly a half century ago, Kurt Vonnegut published his classic antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Few know that its full title was Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

The first part came from Vonnegut's World War II experience. While a prisoner of war, he survived the firebombing of Dresden by taking shelter in a meat locker.

His more allegorical subtitle referred to the early 13th century Children's Crusade, when thousands of German and French teenagers set off on an ill-fated march to recapture Jerusalem. Historians believe most died en route or wound up as slaves in a cause they barely understood. To Vonnegut, it was the proper metaphor for his own near-immolation amid the folly of war.

We're currently witnessing another children's crusade led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 14 teens and three adults were killed in February in the latest mass murder enabled by legally acquired assault weapons. These bold and articulate teens (#NeverAgain) have marched in Washington, D.C., and state capitals.

Those old enough to vote are vowing to march to the ballot box this November to convince legislators to enact common-sense gun laws. They've ignited a movement that has finally cracked the facade of political omnipotence erected by the National Rifle Association.

Other commentators have used the children's crusade metaphor for #NeverAgain. They've likened it to the 1963 civil rights march in Birmingham, Ala., when Sheriff Bull Connor's police assaulted thousands of teenagers with high-powered firehoses and snarling dogs. Pictures from that attack convinced the Kennedy administration to finally take a stand against American-style apartheid.

Because of the horrendous public health consequences of rampant gun violence, it's incumbent on every healthcare leader to join the #NeverAgain movement. Nearly a hundred Americans die every day from gunshot wounds. Civilian deaths from gunfire in the 21st century already exceed all the U.S. combat deaths from WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam combined.

Public health experts and #NeverAgain leaders are painfully aware of the power of their adversaries. Campaign contributions by the NRA play a role, of course.

But the reality is that the 30% of Americans who own guns are easily mobilized as single-issue voters when they feel their rights are being threatened. We need a meaningful reform agenda, carefully tailored to reflect gun owners' sensitivities, that can be enacted in the current political environment.

What might that entail? An overwhelming majority of Americans and gun owners support universal background checks for gun purchases in any setting. Two-thirds of the public back a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. And 4 in 5 voters back a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases and restrictions for people who have been convicted of violent crimes, have mental health issues or are under 21.

In a culture that will remain awash in guns for the foreseeable future, it's also time for the federal government to renew its support for research into proven techniques for preventing gun violence. The 1996 Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from awarding research grants whose results might be used to promote gun control, has left the U.S. with fewer than three dozen gun violence prevention experts.

Last week, Kaiser Permanente announced it would spend $2 million to develop clinical interventions for preventing gun deaths. The agenda includes how to identify people at risk for suicide attempts, which are almost always successful when guns are used. It also wants to identify services that can prevent intimate partner gun violence, especially against women.

It's a drop in the bucket, just a first step in ensuring that the #NeverAgain movement does not become another 13th century march of folly.

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