The recent spate of mass shootings across the United States has reignited the debate over gun violence prevention. Lawmakers returning to Washington this week are facing renewed pressure to do something — anything — in response to the shooting sprees that killed 41 people, from California to Texas to Ohio, in a little more than a month. Yet I am concerned that the debate will return to an all-too-familiar and self-defeating stalemate.
From the perspective of the medical community, gun violence is not primarily a political or ideological issue. With 100 people in America dying of gun violence each day, the equivalent of multiple mass shootings, seven days a week, it’s a public health crisis. It’s an epidemic. It’s relentless, and it's spreading.
Our nation’s EMTs, emergency room clinicians and trauma specialists deal every day with these horrific acts of violence — trying, often in vain, to save lives and repair shattered bodies. Even many of the victims who survive will be burdened by the physical and psychological trauma for the rest of their lives, along with first responders, families and entire communities.
Gun violence is a public health crisis
Human suffering on this scale, consuming so much of the energy and resources of our public health system, certainly merits being called an epidemic. And it demands a commensurate response.
What should that response entail?
It begins with recognizing that gun violence is a public health crisis and that, like any public health crisis, there is no single solution. The problem is multifaceted and so must be our approach. Any effective response to the gun violence epidemic will need to involve government, business, the nonprofit sector and other institutions. Those of us in the health care field have a central role to play.
The medical community, in fact, has participated in the public discussion about guns for decades. This has drawn criticism from gun-rights activists. Last year, when physicians were told to “stay in their lane,” they responded forcefully: This is our lane.
Doctors, nurses, medical researchers and other health professionals must express our unique perspective from the front lines of this crisis, regardless of politics. I see concrete steps — in terms of both treatment and prevention — that we can take to reduce gun-related injuries and deaths.
Help us focus on prevention
Beyond providing urgent care, as the nation’s ERs and trauma centers do every day, hospitals with violence prevention programs connect victims of gun violence with case managers and community resources that can reduce their exposure to further risk. These programs have promise and should be expanded.
The horror of mass shootings commands the headlines, but fewer Americans know that suicides accounted for a staggering 60% of gun-related deaths in 2017. Trained health professionals are well positioned to identify and help at-risk patients by conducting routine screenings. In addition, empowering health professionals to engage in respectful conversations about safe gun ownership — or “lethal means counseling,” as it is known — has been shown to mitigate the risk of impulsive suicides. As a nation, we must also support robust access to mental health services.
Medical professionals to NRA:Guns are our lane. Help us reduce deaths or move over.
While I do not view gun violence as a political issue, political decisions are adversely affecting the health care community’s ability to focus on prevention, the most effective approach to any medical challenge.
An epidemic is not political
In addition to ensuring that health professionals do not face roadblocks in counseling their patients about gun safety, we must redouble our efforts to study what is undeniably one of our greatest public health challenges. Since 1996, Congress has provided no dedicated funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for firearm morbidity and mortality prevention research. To make real progress against the gun violence epidemic, the medical community must rally together to secure the resources to act on the evidence we already have and continue to build new knowledge about the crisis.
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There are, of course, other steps that lawmakers can and must take to reverse the epidemic: passing universal background checks, reinstating an assault weapons ban, promoting extreme risk protection orders that identify at-risk individuals, and broadening safe storage laws that protect children from accessing guns. Many such ideas command wide public support but have yet to become law. That is why, in today’s political climate, America’s gun violence crisis can seem insurmountable.
Yet when viewed through the prism of ending a public health crisis, these are steps we must take, right now, that will save lives while respecting the rights of responsible gun owners. The health care community is ready to join with any lawmakers and all Americans who are ready to act to end this epidemic.
Dr. David J. Skorton, a cardiologist, is president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidJSkorton
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gun violence is a public health crisis, requires major action: Doctor