Thus far in 2018 there have been 307 mass shootings. A total of 12,565 lives, about one-third the number of people who die from car accidents per year in the U.S., have been lost due to gun violence so far this year. The most recent mass shooting took the lives of 12 Californians in Thousand Oaks. Despite these facts, there are more data about airbags and seat belts than about guns.
Whether it happens in Florida or Las Vegas or here in St. Louis, people affected by gun violence (even perpetrators of it) are cared for by doctors, nurses, technicians and other health care professionals. Yet in a recent tweet the National Rifle Association told physicians to “stay in (our) lane.” The reaction from the medical community has been swift.
One physician, Judy Melinek, responded, “This isn’t just my lane. It’s my ... highway.” She was not alone. Over the last week, health care professionals have taken up #ThisIsMyLane and #ThisIsOurLane campaigns to share patient stories illustrating the devastating consequences of gun violence.
The NRA expressed concern about the number of articles related to gun violence in the most recent issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, stating: “Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control.” One article, a position statement from the American College of Physicians, included a number of logical recommendations such as teaching medical students about the management of injuries related to firearms. Other recommendations, such as endorsing legislation regarding semiautomatic firearms, may have drawn the NRA’s ire.
For us, a surgeon and a psychiatrist, gun violence is not a theoretical problem. We have seen the devastating consequences in our patients, whether it is a young patient shot in the head who at best goes on to be an organ donor, or a patient who has severe obesity and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the trauma incurred when her family member was shot to death in front of her.
We have had conversations with families about the death of their loved one who was just hours ago healthy. We have listened to the nightmares, the fears and the guilt, week after week, and sometimes year after year, in sessions. We have held hands, patted shoulders and gently handed tissues to loved ones while fighting back our own tears. Because this is our lane, we have had to walk out of one room only to face another tragedy after barely a moment to reset.
It is no surprise, then, that when the NRA told doctors that gun violence is essentially none of our business, we seized the opportunity to respond, sometimes with ferocity. The hashtag #ThisIsOurLane has been used over 100,000 times. A group of us, led by Drs. Megan Ranney and Cedric Dark, came together to write a petition that garnered over 15,000 signatures in the first 24 hours.
In it, we are asking to do what we physicians do best: research. While there are many causes of death — car accidents, cancer, suicide, etc. — gun violence is the only one we are not allowed to investigate. Agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute fund research in all these other areas. The budget of the National Cancer Institute, for example, is almost $6 billion this year alone.
The Dickey amendment, which essentially says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cannot promote gun control, has had the (perhaps unintended) consequence of severely limiting funding to study gun violence. In fact, until recently doctors in Florida couldn’t even ask their patients if they owned a firearm.
This conversation isn’t a war of words. Instead, it is a plea for partnership and change. If you are a member of the NRA, we want you to join us. Help us understand how to keep innocent people safe while preserving everyone’s constitutional rights. Come with us to meet with family members and survivors and experience the effects of gun violence. Don’t walk away and insist this is not a problem. Sadly, saying that won’t make it so. Let’s also not blame mental illness: Only 4 percent of gun violence is associated with serious mental illness.
The blood on our shoes, the tear-soaked tissues, the echoing cries and screams from loved ones, the faces of the patients who survive and those who don’t — this is all our lane. We invite you to share the road. Let’s set records in 2019 for the fewest mass shootings in U.S. history. Together, we can.
Dr. Jessica Gold is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University. Dr. Arghavan Salles is an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at Washington University.