Across history, physicians have been on the front lines of public health crises. As we bear witness to tragedy, we also work to find solutions. We are willing to toil in anonymity, risk illness and injury, and miss dinners and bedtimes at home, for the sake of our patients. What we have never—and will never—accept is being told that a public health issue is not our issue. Why did the physician community react so strongly to the NRA’s tweet on November 6, telling us to “stay in our lane”? Because, simply, we know that this is our work.
We—the authors of this piece—are both emergency physicians. Treating gunshot wounds is the daily bread and butter of not just our specialty but also that of trauma surgeons, nurses, respiratory therapists, social workers and emergency medicine technicians. In small quiet waiting rooms across the country, we and our colleagues deliver the brutal news of the loss of a loved family member to a gun. We bear witness to the family grief, the stunned tears, the angry shouts and—worse—the quiet silence. We clean up from the aftermath of a failed trauma resuscitation. We attempt to treat the permanent physical and psychological scars borne by survivors of firearm injury, and the guilt of those who felt they could have stopped it.
Daily, we talk to our patients about their grief, their safety, their healing; and we talk about how to stay safe in high-risk situations. We, more than anyone, see the effects of the gun violence epidemic. We, more than anyone, treat its aftermath.
The recent #ThisIsOurLane tweets have not only overwhelmed hashtag analytics. The raw stories contained in the tweets illustrate the profound effect of gun violence on our patients, our communities and our colleagues. Indeed, every day, more than 100 people across the United States die from a firearm injury. Two thirds of these deaths are suicides by firearm. Nine each day happen to children. Fifty victims each month are women who are felled by domestic violence with firearms. The numbers injuries are increasing across all categories. And many of us, as health care providers, have been personally affected by gun violence. This matters to each of us, for our own reasons.
Of course, physicians don’t just treat the victims of public health epidemics. We also work collectively to solve crises as they arise.
Because gun violence is an epidemic of injuries, we know that its upward trajectory could be reversed if we just applied the same tools that we’ve used to solve other public health crises. Some examples: In the past 50 years, the scientific community has cured polio and decreased car crash deaths by 50 percent. In 2018, oncologists engineered a way to have our immune systems fight cancer. The United States is an imaginative nation, and history gives us strong reason to believe that this epidemic of firearm deaths can be addressed—but only if we allow the medical and scientific community to use its collective wisdom and imagination in conducting well-funded large-scale research to address the epidemic.
Note that we can do this without threatening the Second Amendment. We have, after all, reduced automobile deaths without reducing the number of cars on the road. It is critical, however, to acknowledge that these gains came with both a tremendous investment of research dollars and the collective will of the public. We have been prevented from solving the crisis of gun violence because of the lack of research funding.
Some recent, positive steps in the right direction are occurring, however. The American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction (AFFIRM) is a non-partisan organization that channels the collective will of medicine to fund and disseminate public health solutions to the gun violence epidemic. The Firearm Safety Among Children and Teens (FACTS) consortium, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, represents the most significant National Institutes of Health investment in the science of firearm injury in the past 22 years, and demonstrates great commitment and vision to address guns as the second leading cause of death among children.
But to solve this epidemic, we will need to do more. We need to follow the well-laid path of investment that lead to breakthroughs in cancer, with multiple substantial funding streams, rigorous science and consistent dissemination of data and research findings.
We, as doctors, are the ones who attempt to save the victims of shootings in yoga studios, schools, houses of worship, streets and silent lonely homes across our great country. We also know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can solve this epidemic. It is time not to cede our lane—but rather, to accelerate.