Take action, not sides, on gun violence

Take action, not sides, on gun violence
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It’s possible she will hit you. She might sit in silence. She might scream, faint, vomit. Or she might walk up to you slowly, reach out and hug you. Her tears may soak your shirt. 

Whatever she does, do not turn away. She’s a mother, and today her child died.

As a pediatrician and a trauma surgeon, we both see firsthand the heartbreak of firearm-related injury and death impacting people in the United States. In waiting rooms and at the bedside of too many children harmed by bullets, we have done our best to comfort devastated parents, caregivers, family members and friends. 

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We write today encouraged by Congress’s recent decision to allocate funding for research on gun violence prevention, and we join others in celebrating this win. The year-end spending package released by Congress appropriates $25 million to be distributed between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study firearm-related injuries and deaths. 

The public health community welcomes this investment, which is a step in the right direction towards ensuring the safety of all Americans. But this appropriation is tragically minimal compared to the health and economic burdens of firearm-related injuries. We urge Americans to demand more.

Over the next decade, based on the recent past, more than 1 million people in the United States will be shot, and this number does not begin to capture the additional millions of family members, loved ones and communities impacted by these shootings. Among American children and adolescents, firearm-related injuries are the second leading cause of death — more than fire or burns, heart disease, congenital anomalies and drug overdose or poisoning combined. 

In fact, since 1996 when Congress passed a law with a provision prohibiting federal funding for anything construed “to advocate or promote gun control,” more than 36,000 children have died from gunshot wounds in the United States. Three (among others we hope to honor with this essay) were our patients. 

Kayla was 6 years old when she unintentionally shot and killed herself with a handgun she found in her grandfather’s garage. 

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Raymond was 13 when he impulsively used a shotgun to end the pain of a recent break-up. 

Travis caught a stray bullet in his neck at the park, bleeding to death the evening before his high school graduation.

As physicians and citizens, we must ensure we do not lose one more child to senseless gun violence. 

Firearm-related injuries are a public health matter, and we must approach them as we do other public health issues. For example, when high fatality rates from automobile crashes plagued America in the 1960s and ’70s, we didn’t take away Americans’ cars. Instead, research informed ways to make driving safer, including the use of seat belts, air bags and rumble strips on roads. Since then, automobile-related fatalities per mile driven have dropped more than 85 percent.

We believe a similar, data-driven approach to preventing firearm-related injuries will save American lives and, as such, we urge the public to continue calling for action-oriented solutions to make communities safer.

First, our elected officials must support the implementation of commonsense interventions already backed by unbiased, nonpartisan research. We recognize this complex public health problem requires a multifaceted approach, so let us begin with our most promising, evidence-based interventions. Existing data show the positive impact of expanding universal background checks, licensing (permit-to-purchase), extreme risk protection orders, and the secure storage of firearms. By putting people above politics, policymakers can prevent further loss of life.

Second, we call on corporations, foundations, health care systems and others with the ability to form public-private partnerships to close funding gaps in the wake of Congress’s spending package. Americans should view the $25 million appropriation as a small start to a larger need for funding, proportional to firearm-related injuries’ burden to society. Adequate investment from both public and private players will allow for data-driven decision-making as we prioritize programs and other proven solutions moving forward. Without adequate funding for research, mere guessing will continue to guide our decision-making. And our children deserve better.

Congress took a small step in the right direction in honor of the thousands of children harmed by firearm-related injuries. We must continue working together to both ensure the passage of legislation that will save lives now and expand funding for the development of future solutions to address this preventable public health issue. Otherwise, we will continue to fail America’s children, wrongly satisfied by $25 million as we hug more parents in our tear-soaked shirts.

Dr. Michael K. Hole is an assistant professor of pediatrics, population health, and public policy at The University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @DrMichaelHole.

Dr. Joseph V. Sakran is a gun violence survivor and trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Follow him on Twitter @JosephSakran.