“We are not anti-gun. We are anti-bullet hole”: Doctors’ powerful comeback to the NRA

Thousand Oaks police chief hugs an officer following the latest mass shooting.
Thousand Oaks police chief hugs an officer following the latest mass shooting.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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The US medical community and the National Rifle Association are facing off over gun violence.

The controversy comes in the wake of a position paper from the American College of Physicians, recently published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, which recommends evidence-based policies to reduce gun-related injuries and deaths. In response, the NRA derided the group’s “evidence,” writing, “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

Doctors responded quickly and fiercely, tweeting that pulling bullets out of children, telling parents their kids were dead, and watching teens suffer and die put the issue squarely in their lane. Or, as Judy Melinek, a San Francisco-based forensic pathologist, wrote, “This isn’t just my lane. It’s my fucking highway.”

The same week, in Thousand Oaks, California, 12 people were killed in yet another mass shooting, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new 2015–2016 data showing there were 27,394 firearm homicides and 44,955 firearm suicides in the US. Homicide is the third most-common cause of death among kids between the ages of 10-19, with a firearm injury being the underlying cause of death in 74% of all homicides and in 87% of youth homicides.

Gun-related suicides are also on the rise, according to the CDC. From 2006 to 2016, annual rates of firearm suicide increased 21%.

And so, rather than back down in the face of the NRA’s pushback, some members of the medical community are once again highlighting gun violence as a public-health issue. On Friday, the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine (AFFIRM), a nonprofit group of healthcare leaders and academics, penned an open letter detailing the many ways that gun-related violence lands in their lane. (As of Nov. 12, 25,305 people had signed it.) “As the professionals who manage this epidemic, we bear witness to every trauma resuscitation, regardless of outcome,” it said. These include:

* We cut open chests and hold hearts in our hands in the hopes of bringing them back to life.
* We do our best to repair the damage from bullets on pulverized organs and splintered bones.
* We care for the survivors of firearm injury for decades after they’ve been paralyzed, lost a limb, or been disabled.
* We deliver mental health care to the siblings and parents of the children who have been shot as well as to the survivors of gun violence.
* We treat the anxiety of teachers and students who are already traumatized by the news of mass shootings who are then are asked to participate in active shooter drills in their own schools.
* We train civilians to carry and use tourniquets to #StopTheBleed, something that should be necessary on battlefields but not in American grade school classrooms.
* We try our best to conduct research to stop the epidemic of gun violence
* We hold the hands of gunshot victims taking their final breaths.
* We cry ourselves, as we tell parents that their child has been shot and that we did our best.
* We escort parents into our treatment rooms to take one last look at their dead child before they have been able to process the news.
* We see firsthand how a single moment ends a life and forevers changes the lives of survivors, families, and entire communities.

The medical and scientific community have long called gun violence a public health crisis. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Practitioners and the American Academy of Pediatrics all issued statements in 2018 demanding federal action on firearms. In 2016, more than 100 medical and public health organizations wrote to Congress to fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the causes of it.

Any yet, unlike deaths from drownings or HIV or motor vehicles, gun-related violence and death continues to attract little funding. This is intentional: the NRA for decades pushed Congress to prevent funding, instead insisting the country invest in treating mental health issues and crime prevention. As it said in their critique of the ACP paper:

The ACP’s policy recommendations include a ban on semiautomatic firearms and “high” (read: standard) capacity magazines, licensing and permitting requirements, improved reporting to NICS, restrictions on concealed carry, and so on. None of the ACP’s policy recommendations focus on law enforcement or the importance of identifying, prosecuting, and incarcerating criminals

AFFIRM’s position is one that those who live in countries with little or no gun violence know: that firearm related injuries are preventable; that well-funded, national research is necessary; and that firearm availability is indeed linked to the fact that 100 people die and 200 people are injured every day in the US in gun-related violence, according to AFFIRM. In other words, guns are inextricably related to gun-related injury and death. The issue in America is in everyone’s lane.