In the wake of Parkland, we all find ourselves evaluating our own experiences with guns — for many physicians, those consist primarily of patients we have cared for. For pediatric doctors in particular, the stories are haunting and horrifying.
Recently on Twitter, physicians were asked to share their stories about gun violence. As I read through the responses, I first thought “thank goodness I don’t see many of these patients.” And then I contributed a story I remembered. And another one. And two more. They kept resurfacing, roiling up without conscious willing, like flashbacks. I realized I had blocked many of them out of my aware mind, because, really, taking care of children who have been shot is the worst kind of pediatric medicine, the kind that goes against everything we stand for — protecting children, keeping them safe, avoiding preventable tragedy, violence against the vulnerable, defending against toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences. A litany of thoughts followed: “I don’t even work in a trauma center.” “I don’t even see adults.” “I’ve only been doing this 10 years… so many kids.” “If I have this many stories, how many do ER docs and trauma surgeons have?”
No matter what your politics or personal beliefs, we are deluding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that gun violence is a public health emergency in our country. It is a sinister beast that takes many forms — accidental injuries, intimate partner violence, suicide, murder, mass shootings, school shootings. Some of these we will never be able to avoid completely. But the magnitude of the deaths that seem most avoidable are just that — preventable events over which we as a people can have some control.
I am not a gun owner, and my opinion is that the risk in owning a gun would far, far outweigh any benefit. But I also wholeheartedly recognize that that is a personal opinion, for my own home only, and that others are entitled to feel differently. And here’s the thing, my point in publicly advocating for the safety of children is not to take away anyone’s right to make that decision for themselves. I’ll say it very plainly — I don’t want to take away your guns. Here’s what I do want:
- I want us as physicians, as communities, and as a nation to call out firearm violence as a public health issue. When we talk about things like opioid addiction, obesity, and motor vehicle accidents, we name them as public health crises, and we devote millions of dollars and expert brains to determining how to decrease the impact on American lives. We need to repeal the Dickey amendment, fund firearm safety research, and take a public health approach to gun violence so that we can have evidence-based, data-driven conversations about how to do better.
- I want commonsense firearm legislation enacted. This includes stronger background checks, raising the age of purchase, banning bump stocks and high-capacity magazines — things that the majority of Americans support (including many gun owners) to make our country safer.
- I want to be able to talk to my patients and their parents about safe storage — in the same way that I would ask whether a home has a swimming pool, or any pets, or a fireplace. I don’t want to tell parents to get rid of those things but to talk about how to ensure that their suicidal teen or curious elementary-school child absolutely cannot access their firearms.
- I want to prove or disprove the recurrent refrain that “the issue isn’t guns, it’s mental health.” Unfortunately I can’t do that either, because many of the same legislators who have voted against firearm safety legislation have also voted repeatedly to cut mental health funding. I see patients every week in the hospital with psychiatric issues who can’t access treatment because of funding cuts, and every time, I hope it won’t be the next person I see on the news having hurt someone else.
But mostly, I want what every parent in this country wants for their own children — I want them to not only feel safe but to be safe. I don’t want bulletproof backpacks marketed to parents of elementary-schoolers to be a thing. I want kids to know that adults in the United States are doing absolutely everything we can to control the epidemic of firearm violence so that they, and their families, are not 25 times more likely to be killed by a gun than citizens of any other high-income country. Making our country safer for our children is not a partisan issue — it is our duty. #ENOUGH