It’s time for physicians to raise their voices and end gun violence

As many who are pediatricians or know pediatricians are aware, the quest to end gun violence is a passion for our profession and an advocacy issue of utmost importance for our professional organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Having practiced in areas with a high incidence of gun violence for most of my career until recently moving to California, I have seen first-hand how this tragic issue affects the children and families for whom I care.

Two years ago a teenage girl was shot and killed steps from the entrance to my North Philadelphia office in the middle of the afternoon on her way home from school.  The father of a family whose children I cared for was robbed at gunpoint and killed one evening right outside of his car at a convenience store while his children watched from inside the car.  Another family took in mom’s 4-year-old nephew after her brother, who was his sole caregiver, was caught in the crossfire of a shooting and killed.  These stories that so rarely even make the news these days are no less heartbreaking than the mass shootings that do and tug at the heartstrings of the entire community.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, the AAP and its members made advocating for legislation to reduce gun violence and senseless gun related deaths one of its highest priorities.  Whether via mass shootings like Sandy Hook, individual acts of violence like those mentioned above, adolescent suicide or the many accidental gun deaths suffered by children each year, we came together as an organization to collectively say enough is enough.

At the 2013 AAP Legislative Advocacy Conference, pediatricians from across the country came together and met with our respective legislators attempting to garner support for the bipartisan bill proposed by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA).  This bill proposed expanded background checks, a registry for those who are prohibited by law from purchasing guns, and the dedication of funds to researching gun violence.  It failed.  A largely inactive Congress has subsequently failed to address this issue in any meaningful way in the three years since.

Pediatricians, however, are not the only group of physicians to experience the horrors of gun violence first-hand.  ER doctors and trauma surgeons in many areas treat victims of gun-related violence and injury far too often.  Orthopedic surgeons and plastic surgeons repair the wounds left by guns.  Rehabilitation physicians treat patients through long and grueling recoveries after gun-related injuries.  ICU physicians grieve with the families of victims who do not survive.  Psychiatrists work to heal the emotional wounds of victims and their families.  Radiologists feel the pain of this epidemic simply be reading the films that reflect these tragedies.  We all see and feel this pain in our respective fields of expertise, as do the countless nurses, aides, therapists and other medical professionals who work with victims of gun violence.

What we are experiencing in the United States right now with gun violence is nothing short of a public health crisis.  According to the CDC, firearm homicides accounted for 11,208 deaths in 2013, making them responsible for 70 percent of all homicides. Nearly 1500 children under the age of 18 die as a result of gun-related injury every year.  2015 marked the grim year where firearm deaths became equal in number to motor vehicle deaths.  This shocks me.  These statistics are staggering, and if we were discussing similar results secondary to any other preventable disease process, such as a vaccine-preventable infectious disease, the medical community would be leading the charge to encourage change.

That is not to say that there are not many physicians from all fields advocating for change on this very issue right now.  There are many, and their efforts are heroic.  However, I would like to suggest that the time has come for all of us to band together and raise our collective voices to say that we will not stand for this any longer.  Let’s all contact our respective professional organizations and let them know how much this issue means to us and ask them to support our group efforts to advocate for effective legislation.  Let’s flood the inboxes of our senators (find yours on senate.gov) and congressional representatives (find yours at house.gov) to let them know that we are holding them accountable for changing the status quo.  Let’s find out how our representatives voted on Manchin-Toomey and research how they are rated by groups like the NRA that work so hard to keep common sense legislation from passing.

Let’s tell them that we support Manchin-Toomey and that we stand united in our belief that assault weapons, like the AR-15 used in Orlando, have no place in our society.  Let’s contact our local representatives and let them know how we feel.  Let’s write op-ed pieces and teach our residents and medical students to advocate for changes in gun safety legislation.  We are a respected group of professionals to whom the public often looks in times of crisis and the time has come to use our voices and positions to unite on this critical issue.

The mass shooting in Orlando has left me with a profound sadness with which I have not yet come to terms.  It has also left me with remarkable anger at the apathy of our leaders to effect any change that may prevent incidents such as this for continuing to happen at an astounding rate.  But more than anything, it has left me motivated to raise my voice and not let it rest until change has occurred.  I hope that you will all choose to channel your sadness and anger into motivation as well, because together we are so much more likely to make a change.

Morgan Leafe is a pediatric hospitalist. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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