YOUR COLUMN HERE — In the past couple of years, our nation has witnessed an unprecedented number of mass casualty tragedies because of gun violence. Recent events include mass shootings at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, and the Navy Yard in Washington DC. Closest to home, we were all horrified by the killing of 6 innocent victims in Santa Monica this past June and the shooting at LAX in November. In between mass tragedies that make the national news, communities across the country quietly suffer from gun violence on a daily basis. Just this past Independence Day weekend in Chicago, there were 82 shootings with at least 13 deaths. Additionally, the medical journal “Pediatrics” reported earlier this year that 20 American children or adolescents were hospitalized each day in 2009 because of firearm related injuries.
As physician witnesses to this epidemic of gun violence, we see victims enter through our emergency departments on a daily basis in hospitals all across Los Angeles County. It is certainly a challenge to medically treat these patients, but comforting their grieving families is often just as difficult and heartbreaking.
There remains great controversy among the public and lawmakers about how to reduce gun violence in our country- so much controversy that lawmakers have been unable to find consensus and pass any substantial federal legislation since the Sandy Hook tragedy placed gun legislation back on our national radar.
Those that advocate stricter firearm ownership laws point to evidence that decreased gun ownership may decrease gun violence. Last year, the American Journal of Medicine published an article showing that the number of guns per capita per country is a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death. This may explain our epidemic of gun violence. According to the Small Arms Survey, an ongoing independent research project based out of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, the United States had the most guns per capita in the world with 94.3 guns/100 residents in 2007- almost double the rate of Serbia, the second ranked country.
There is a large, passionate faction of Americans, however, that fervently question the wisdom of stricter gun ownership laws- viewing these laws as an infringement on the right to bear arms guaranteed in our Bill of Rights. Instead, many have advocated focusing on improving mental healthcare in our country. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness gave our nation’s mental health system a grade of D in 2009. While there has been some legislation increasing funding for our mental healthcare system recently, significant progress has not been achieved.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it is not debatable that gun violence has increasingly become a threat to our public health. Throughout our history, physicians and scientists have successfully decreased the incidence of and improved the outcomes of numerous epidemics like this in our country with public health research, advocacy, and outreach- often lead by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Examples include cancer, heart disease, and HIV.
Unfortunately, there has been federal legislation restricting gun violence research by the CDC since 1996 and the NIH since 2011. The legislation prohibits research that “advocates or promotes gun control” and has handcuffed both agencies from gathering and analyzing any gun violence data at all. Last year, President Obama called for a renewed effort and funding for gun violence research by federal scientific agencies. However, this has yielded little progress and the previous legislation remains in place to be used by opposing legislators to prevent increased federal funding during budget negotiations.
At its annual convention in October 2013, the California Medical Association, with the support of the Los Angeles County Medical Association, formally supported the lifting of any restrictions on NIH and CDC research on gun violence. This legislation must be repealed. Furthermore, the public must insist that the federal government prioritize scientific funding for our top scientists to gather the proper data to analyze and find solutions to this public health problem. Enough innocent Americans have died. Regardless of where you stand on gun control, how can anyone argue against gathering objective evidence to base our future solutions on?
As physicians, we continually experience the impact of gun violence on victims, families, and communities in a way others cannot. These daily experiences spur us to try and tackle gun violence in the same manner we have tackled other diseases- to help improve the lives of our patients. We have answered public health challenges in the past, and if given the proper resources we will answer this one as well. We urge the public to support our advocacy for lifting any federal restrictions on gun violence research and lobby their legislators to make funding gun violence research a priority.
Sion Roy MD, Los Angeles County Medical Association (LACMA) board member
Kathleen Ruchalski MD, LACMA member
Pedram Salimpour MD, LACMA President
Marshall Morgan MD, LACMA Immediate Past President