Violence, in particular, firearm violence, has been a specter of American culture for decades, and its impact on public health has been shrouded in the shadows for nearly as long, thanks to political lobbying by gun manufacturers. An NPR article entitled “How The NRA Worked To Stifle Gun Violence Research,” published in April 2018, provides some history on the topic. A short summary? The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, slashed funding for studies on gun violence by 90 percent and prohibited the CDC from supporting gun control. The Tiahrt Amendment, passed in 2003, then prevented the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from disseminating information regarding the purchase history of guns used in crimes. Both pieces of legislation were lobbied for by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which relied on the age-old tactic of fear-mongering to keep the public in the dark about the public health impacts of gun ownership.
A spending bill passed in March 2018 finally gave the CDC funding to resume research on studies about gun violence. A follow-up NPR article published in September 2021, “After 25 Years In The Dark, The CDC Wants To Study The True Toll Of Guns In America” sheds more light on the issue and delves into the possibilities regarding policy changes following the first step of any scientific inquiry—data gathering.
The extent of the lobbying behind the topic of gun violence should shock us because, in some ways, it is a gag order to stop talking about it. And yet, this doesn’t shock me. It doesn’t shock me because, in 2012, 20 children and seven adults were killed, with two more injured at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut—the result of a personal vendetta and easy access to firearms. It doesn’t shock me because in 2017, 60 people were killed, and 413 more were injured at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas—the single deadliest mass shooting in America. It doesn’t shock me because in 2019, 23 people were killed and 23 more injured at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, by a far-right white supremacist under a right-wing government.
The topic of numbness often arises in the conversation surrounding gun violence. If there is anything I’ve learned in school so far, it’s that being numb dehumanizes our patients and ourselves. If we feel nothing at all, we give up the feelings of hope, joy, and peace that comes from fulfillment in our goals and ideals, and for many of us, we came to medical school to advocate for our patients and for our communities.
It’s easy to look away. It’s easy to forget. And it’s easy to give up. That is why I’m writing this article now when there is a lull in the news headlines about guns and the lifelong trauma that accompanies shootings. That is why I’m putting efforts toward better understanding the CDC grant awards for research on gun violence and prevention and its potential impacts on public policy.
“The most revolutionary thing you can do is graduate medical school” is a mantra often repeated by the health equity leaders at my medical school. It is a phrase that brings comfort during hard times, an idea that validates the enormity of the struggle of balancing coursework and community service. Watching the community I grew up in, and countless other communities struggle with the scourge of gun violence while trying to learn the pathophysiology behind kidney dysfunction is disorienting. But when the enormity of the task at hand we have overwhelms me, the potential for advocacy and learning what we can do to help keeps me going. It keeps my mentors going. It keeps my peers going. And we’ll never stop. This is our lane in medicine, like it or not.
Shreya Kumar is a medical student.