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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Town Hall meeting held on gun violence

Dr. Laurie Punch, a trauma surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, speaks on treating gunshot wound patients during a town hall meeting on gun violence at Better Family Life on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Dr. Laurie Punch will not be staying in her lane.

The trauma surgeon and associate professor at Washington University’s Institute of Public Health knows a thing or two about stemming the tide of blood that flows out of a body riddled with bullet holes. Before she came to St. Louis two years ago, she practiced in the city of Baltimore, another urban enclave where gun violence is out of control.

“There is nothing killing black men in St. Louis the way bullets are,” Punch says.

Count her among a growing number of physicians, surgeons and scientists in the United States who stand ready to reframe the firearm debate in this country into a public health discussion rooted in science. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this month the latest gun-related death statistics, which paint a grim picture of a nation where mass shootings are becoming so common they don’t even rate front-page headlines some days.

In 2015 and 2016, the CDC found, firearm-related deaths rose in the U.S., in both homicides and suicides. More than 27,000 people were killed by firearms in 2015-16, and nearly 45,000 people died by suicide using a firearm, the CDC said.

As physicians reacted to the numbers on social media, the National Rifle Association responded with a tweet:

“Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

At Washington University, that’s not going to happen.

Three years ago, with Congress refusing to fund firearm-related research at the CDC, the university decided it was time to step up. It started with a tragic death.

Chelsea Harris was 16. She was a junior at Lift for Life Academy who was gunned down in the middle of the day in north St. Louis. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Harris was being mentored by Risa Zwerling Wrighton, the wife of Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton. Heartbroken by the young girl’s death, the Wrightons turned their grief into action and launched the Gun Violence Initiative.

Three years later, the researchers at Washington U. are doing what they do best: looking for answers while trying to stop the bleeding.

“Most of the public health issues where we’ve moved the needle, we’ve done it because we had good research,” says Dr. Bill Powderly, director of the Institute for Public Health. Whether it’s driving laws — seat belts and drunken driving — or control of infectious disease — public health professionals have always been at the forefront of a political process that begins with research. “We have to have good data.”

In St. Louis, that data is coming.

The four trauma hospitals in the city are working together on a program called “Life Outside of Violence,” where young people who come in with firearm-related injuries are given an opportunity to find the support and resources they need to escape the cycle of violence. The goal is to figure out what works.

The institute also is working with mental health providers on suicide prevention, on a program to hand out gun locks, and other programs to try to both study and stem gun-related injuries and deaths, including among children who pick up their parents’ improperly stored guns.

Then there is Punch’s “Stop the Bleed” program. On its surface, the program is simply about teaching people in the field — teachers, nurses, clergy, medical students, teenagers — trauma techniques to stop bleeding at the scene of gun violence in hopes of saving lives.

But the greater value of the program, Punch found, is in making the connection with young people who live in neighborhoods consumed by death. It took her a year and a half, she said, to gain the trust of community members, such as the Rev. James Clark of Better Family Life, to be able to make her program most effective by getting trauma kits in the hands of those who most need it.

“It was exceptionally humbling as a surgeon to recognize that the skills I had developed with my hands should have instead been invested in my ears,” Punch says.

The power of listening has helped her understand how to better try to help young people who grow up in communities where everybody knows somebody whose life has been devastated or ended by a bullet. She recalls a town hall this summer at Better Family Life, where mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and brothers and sisters talked about how pervasive the violence in some parts of St. Louis can be.

“I was shocked,” Punch says. “People were talking about not being able to walk outside. They didn’t care what we were doing at the hospital. They couldn’t simply live, breathe, work and play.”

Just a few days after the NRA told doctors to stay out of the national debate about firearms and public health, a gunman walked into a Chicago hospital and started firing. He killed an emergency room doctor, a police officer, and a pharmacist.

The shooting shook up health professionals across the country.

They will not be silenced.

Talking about, and studying, firearm-related deaths is a public health necessity, says Punch: “This is our lane.”