Surgeon's decree: Gun control a public health issue
By Sara K. Rasmussen
Last month, our country endured an unspeakable horror when elementary school students in Newtown, Connecticut, became the victims of one of the most heinous gun rampages that our country has experienced. As a mother and a citizen, I am outraged and hurt to have had to live through yet another episode in our nation’s history where innocent lives were lost to gun violence. As a pediatric surgeon, I have seen the heartbreaking outcome of guns in the wrong hands too often.
In my last year of fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, I was called to the trauma bay to care for a 4-year-old boy who had been shot in the face when he opened his mother’s door. He died despite our team’s best efforts. His death, a murder in a private home, barely made the next day’s news. Sadly, his death was not the only senseless gun violence I encountered as a surgery resident.
There was the 4-month-old who was shot through the elbow and the 12-month-old who suffered a crippling gunshot wound in the growth plate of his femur. Both of these children’s injuries were collateral damage from domestic disputes. Other days, our teams attempted to save a 14-year old boy who was shot when he opened a car door, a middle-aged man shot while opening his business, and a man who was gunned down in front of his wife during an attempted robbery of his bodega. I could list more.
In the summers in Richmond, where I completed my residency, the trauma bay was also plagued by weekly gun violence. These murders and assaults were not perpetrated by the mentally ill. These were the works of desperate people, bullies, and individuals with few options in life.
I have seen victims who have been shot four or five times. In a full-grown person, these multiple gunshot wounds inflict an incredible amount of damage. I cringe to consider the 6 and 7-year-olds who suffered the same fate in Connecticut.
I am deeply disturbed by the reaction of our legislators and activists who want to use the Sandy Hook episode to justify requiring elementary school teachers to carry concealed weapons, and have attributed the preventable causes of this episode to the mental illness of a lone individual. To me, this signifies the deepest state of denial, a refusal to see that too easy access to guns contributed not only to the Sandy Hook school massacre but to the deaths of countless children and adults killed every day in our country. Can we value the lives of our inner city children as much as we value the lives of the children at Sandy Hook? This requires that we not chalk up the massacre at Sandy Hook to just one kid’s mental illness, but acknowledge that access to weapons contributed as well.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama unveiled a sweeping gun control plan that includes actions gun control advocates have long pushed for: requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, restoring the assault weapon ban, eliminating high-capacity magazines, increasing mental health resources that would allow for detection of troubled youths like Adam Lanza before they harm others and themselves, and reviewing and strengthening security in our public schools. At last, it seems, there is the political momentum to make meaningful strides toward a safer country, and yet there is plenty of reason to fear this effort will be thwarted.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby has successfully blocked reasonable measures to control and regulate firearms in this country for years. They are far-reaching and insidious in their influence over this issue. Consider these NRA "achievements": 10 years ago they succeeded in eliminating federal funding to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for public health research that would examine the effects of gun violence on our society. The result is that there is currently no credible evidence on which to evaluate the effects of gun control. The NRA lobby actively seeks to remove from office those individuals who would make gun control policy a priority in the United States. And, I recently learned, that they succeeded in making it illegal for me, as a physician, to ask my patients about guns in the home– a screening question that I was taught in medical school was crucial to caring for my patients. How did this happen?
The NRA insisted that a clause be placed into the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act that prohibits physicians from “gathering data” from families about guns in the home. This is done under the pretense of protecting citizens from punitive charges from insurance companies.
While I am outraged by these underhanded efforts which benefit gun manufacturers, I am not anti-gun, and I support the Second Amendment. My father, who qualified as a rifle sharpshooter and a pistol expert in the U.S. Marines, introduced me to rifle practice at the age of 8. In doing so, he taught me that responsible gun ownership means taking responsibility not just for your own safety, but for the safety of all those in the firing range of your weapon.
It is time for us, as a country, to decide what responsible gun ownership looks like. I don’t think it looks like a country where unstable, isolated youths can easily access assault weapons. It doesn’t look like a country where a 4-year-old can be murdered for opening his mother’s front door. And I doubt it looks like a country where our elementary school teachers are carrying concealed weapons.
It is time for the U.S. government to stop being bullied by the NRA into protecting the interests of gun manufacturers. If we passed legislation that made guns and ammunition as difficult to obtain as a box of Sudafed (which is still not difficult), young lives would be saved. Gun violence is a public health concern, and it is high time our government publicly recognized that and acted accordingly, instead of allowing the NRA to dictate the agenda on this issue.
Sara Rasmussen is a pediatric surgeon and mother of two who lives in Charlottesville.Read more on: gun control