On Aug. 1, 1966, a gunman climbed The University of Texas at Austin clock tower and systematically shot 31 people before his life was ended by local authorities. Our modern history of Texans shooting Texans began at that clock tower, and it should have ended there. Instead, on May 18, 2018, we added another date to a growing list of Texas massacres. The events in Santa Fe should not be considered routine, yet this year alone we’ve seen 36 Texans die from mass shootings. We are not doing enough to abate this epidemic of gun violence. In Houston, we have a world-renowned medical center, and we are failing to use it as a resource to find solutions for our gun violence epidemic. We can do more to ensure that Santa Fe is the final page in this dark chapter in Texas’ history books.
Our political leaders are quick to offer one of two solutions from the top of their bully pulpits; either for gun control or increasing access to firearms, but nobody really knows if their proposed interventions will work. Some tout what works in other countries, while ignoring the sheer quantity of privately owned guns in America: 300 million firearms in homes across the U.S. — well above any other nation in the world. Our situation is unprecedented, and we cannot simply extrapolate solutions used by other countries. Texans don’t need impulsive reactions to a deadly issue. We need solutions proposed by our local public health community. We should turn to the Texas Medical Center before we propose options for the Capitol.
So far, our nation’s public health community has been stymied by the Dickey Amendment, which imposed a moratorium on gun violence research. Since its passage, gun violence research was effectively halted due to a lack of funding and a hostile political atmosphere. The Dickey Amendment’s long-term consequences are particularly sinister, preventing public health officials from specializing in gun violence. An entire generation of public health professionals has been discouraged from looking at this issue.
Last year, a classmate and I started a class on gun violence for our medical school titled, “Gun Violence and Physicians: What You Need to Know.” We coordinated a lecture series with speakers from across the Texas Medical Center to educate future health care professionals about an aspect of medicine that they will see in clinic. Not surprisingly, there were no dedicated experts in the field of gun violence to teach the class. But we did discover there were many with a desire to learn from those in the medical field who had gathered enough knowledge during their clinical experience to teach. The individuals who completed the class will be part of the solution, as they were taking the initiative to educate themselves about an important public health issue and positioning themselves to help prevent another Santa Fe from happening.
As mass shootings happen with increasing frequency, citizens are holding their lawmakers accountable. The latest spending bill included language that chips away at the Dickey Amendment. This new language is a partial victory — giving explicit permission for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence, but provides no funding. This change signals to the public health community that we are ready for their help. We are ready for them to research interventions so our elected officials can implement evidence-based solutions to our uniquely American problem. Now that we know the public health community will not be punished for their initiatives, we need to secure funding to match the importance of their work.
As public opinion changes to support backing the public health community, Texas should take the initiative. We are perfectly situated to start addressing our gun violence problem. We have a proud history in Texas and respect our firearms, but we must find a way to prevent gun violence. We should be taking the lead. We have the largest medical center in the world. We have the busiest trauma center in the country. We have an excellent school of public health. We are home to some of the brightest medical and public health minds. We can find a solution here. We should establish a gun violence research initiative in the Texas Medical Center. Let’s ensure that closest our children come to these tragedies again is reading about them in their history books, not in the news, and not as victims.