Gun Violence: When will we make a change?

  • Agarwal, Rita, MD, FAAP, FASA
| Aug 22, 2016

California Governor Jerry Brown signed six new gun control bills into law in July, while vetoing five others. The new provisions include:

  • Requiring an ID and background check to purchase ammunition, and creating a new database of ammunition owners
  • Banning possession of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 bullets
  • Banning the sale of semiautomatic rifles equipped with bullet buttons that allow ammunition magazines to be quickly detached and replaced.

gov-brown-signing-billWill these new measures make a difference and prevent more gun violence? They are a start, but I only wish I could believe that they will be enough. I recently moved to California after living for years in Colorado, and my story may explain why I care so deeply about this issue.

I love Denver. It is the perfect city: mountains, wide open spaces, vibrant, diverse, lots of sunshine. We lived in a beautiful area on the outskirts of Denver, near Littleton, Lakewood, and Englewood. After my beautiful baby boy arrived in 1997, I used to drive around my area exploring with him. There was a wonderful park just a couple of miles away, near what looked like an amazing modern high school. I was excited to think that my son would go to that school when he was old enough.

My son was 18 months old when the Columbine shootings took place. That was the school near the park. We were out of town, but still I was shocked, horrified, and grief-stricken. I had friends whose children were trapped at the school, and others whose children escaped early. Watching the images – of my neighborhood, my park, my community surrounded by police, students marching out of the school – was gut-wrenching.

That was where my baby played on the swings, dug in the sand, ran joyously over the hills. How could this be happening; right next to my home? Helicopters, police in riot gear, weeping children and adults, right where he chased butterflies. Bodies lying on the ground, blood seeping slowly from them, huddled people in the bushes where we played hide-and-seek.

Our communities, both where I lived and where I worked, were devastated. It felt surreal. I expected never to have another experience like this again.

quotescover-PNG-40We cared for several of the injured children at Denver’s Children’s Hospital. Even though I wasn't there on the first day, I still felt profoundly affected. These children returned days, weeks, months later for additional surgery, anesthesia, therapy, and pain management. We took care of them. We grieved at their setbacks and rejoiced in their triumphs.

Maybe now, we thought, something will be done, changes will be made. Somehow we can prevent guns from getting into the hands of the wrong people. We can recognize and treat mental illness better; we can prevent bullying. We can do SOMETHING.

Several years later, Children's Hospital moved to a beautiful new campus at the former Fitzsimmons Army base, in Aurora, a few miles away from a great new movie theater. I left work one night, drove past that theater, and returned to work the next day to find a world gone crazy.

During a midnight showing of the new Batman movie, someone had walked into the theater and shot people. I heard about it when I got up in the morning, on the way into work, driving past the movie theater. We received several patients from that massacre. University Hospital got most of them, but the several we cared for were enough.

My colleagues who had been on call that night were still there, shell-shocked, grappling with disbelief. We mourned, wept, remained professional, took care of our patients, and helped “mop up”.  We shook our heads at the frailty and strength of the human body, and at the incomprehensible human brain that could be capable of committing and justifying such actions.

We worried about each other and our colleagues across the street at the University Hospital. Some got counseling; others coped by talking to one another. A few struggled profoundly.

Now there have been more shootings, worse shootings – if you can tell someone who lost a loved one that there’s something worse. And always, there is blame, anger, finger-pointing, and nothing changes. We just live with the sorrow and keep trying to take the best possible care of our patients.

The horror is a living, palpable presence that doesn't go away. It fades but returns unexpectedly at random times, or whenever massacres happen again…and again…and again. Most of us find ways to cope and live our lives; some don’t. Most of us are changed in ways both obvious and subtle. I think about both Columbine and Aurora all the time, the patients, the murdered, the perpetrators, the heroes and bystanders. We returned to our park often, visited the memorials, and drove by the movie theatre. We live our lives and hope it will never happen again – until it does. Newtown, San Bernardino, Orlando…

I cannot imagine that this is what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Hand-held weapons with such terrible destructive capacity didn’t exist when the Second Amendment was written.  

Sensible solutions MUST be possible. We are all intelligent, caring people and physicians. Some of us own guns and some of us don’t. Some think banning certain kinds of weapons is the answer; others think banning large-capacity magazines and improving background checks will help. Many believe that people on the Terrorist Screening Center’s “No-Fly List” should be barred from buying guns.

Whether you believe in the unlimited right to buy whatever weapon you wish, or you believe that there should be limits, I’m sure no one wants to see more of these murders. Our lawmakers in Washington can’t seem to help; they have voted down all proposed gun regulations from both parties.

quotescover-PNG-75How about studying the causes and effects of gun violence? Why is there so little research? Why don’t the scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do more? The CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention doesn’t even mention the subject.

The answer is simple: because in 1997 Congress stripped the CDC of its funding for gun violence research, and then passed a measure (known as the Dickey Amendment) forbidding the CDC to spend any funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” While the CDC is allowed to track firearms-related deaths, it has not been able to perform any meaningful research since 2001.  

Though President Obama instructed the CDC to resume research after the Newtown massacre, Congress has not restored funding. The CDC’s researchers have moved on to other areas, and people continue to die.

Calling gun violence a “public health crisis”, the AMA is asking Congress to restore funding and promote research about gun violence. This should be a first step. How can we treat that which we do not understand? It is time to stop the rhetoric – the so-called facts quoted by people on all sides of this issue – and scientifically study it. What are the causes, what mental illness measures can help prevent it, and what can reduce the harm caused by gun violence in general? How does knowledge hurt us? We study everything else; why not this?

This problem, while not unique to this country, is certainly much more prevalent here than anywhere else in the civilized world. Is this what we want?

Please. Let’s find some way to stop the violence.

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