Forged in pain, new Mass. General gun violence center aims at prevention
It started with a few people in a room, and a mountain of pain.
But that handful of doctors grew into a vast, varied group of health care professionals determined to figure out how Massachusetts General Hospital might help prevent the gun violence that brought so many people to its doors.
On Monday morning, MGH will announce the formation of the Mass General Center for Gun Violence Prevention, founded by two doctors whose lives were changed by shootings.
For Dr. Chana Sacks, an internist and researcher, it was the death of her cousin’s son, Daniel, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. He was 7 years old.
“As I went through that experience, I realized that we were treating this issue so differently” from anything else that kills roughly 40,000 people a year, Sacks said.
For Dr. Peter Masiakos, a pediatric trauma surgeon at MGH, the steady stream of gun injuries and violence made it clear that something had to change.
“There are too many to remember. But I remember every one of them,” Masiakos said. “I find that working on the prevention side of injuries is far more productive than actually putting the injuries back together.”
The effort they began at the hospital spread quickly. Gun violence, it turned out, touched all kinds of disciplines in ways that were not immediately obvious: infections, spinal injuries, trauma that was about more than flesh and blood. A meeting became a coalition.
When some wanted to show support for the teens participating in last year’s March for our Lives national antigun violence demonstration, a huge crowd of MGH staffers came pouring out for a picture in the snow.
Now, through research, outreach, and clinical training, the center will join a growing national effort to confront gun violence in all its forms. And it arrives as physicians, hospitals, and health care systems around the country are emphasizing a public health approach to the problem.
That means everything from distributing free gun locks to patients — “the same way we hand out free condoms or bike helmets,” Sacks said — to helping fill the vast information void left by the 1996 Dickey Amendment, the federal legislation that effectively prevents the Centers for Disease Control from doing meaningful research on gun violence. An initial project, creating and conducting simulation trainings that will teach physicians how best to talk with patients about guns and gun safety, has already begun.
“We’re really good at asking patients about their safety. . . . Pediatricians do it all the time,” said Masiakos. “I think this is the opportunity that we have as health care providers to do the same thing for gun violence.”
Despite renewed congressional efforts to fund gun-violence research at the CDC, the MGH doctors said they are not counting on federal funding. “Most of the people that have been on the front lines of gun-violence research have either self-funded or have been able to get funding by means that superseded the government’s intention not to fund,” said Masiakos.
Initial money for the center includes $1.2 million from MGH and $200,000 from Harvard Medical School. Officials plan to raise more through philanthropy.
Even as awareness and engagement with the issue of gun violence have grown, public understanding of the reality is imperfect.
“Mass shootings understandably capture the nation’s attention and are horrific in a unique way,” said Sacks, who lost a family member in one of hardest to fathom. “But it’s important to note that they account for about 1 percent of gun deaths in the US.”
Many more gun deaths — nearly two-thirds — are suicides. And focusing only on those who die ignores the lasting scars, physical and emotional, that gun violence leaves behind, shattering and terrifying communities right here in Boston.
“By any metric, Massachusetts is one of — if not the — safest states in the country when it comes to gun violence,” Sacks said. “And that is not the experience of a lot of the communities within Boston. I think that disconnect is really important to delve into.”
Chaplain Clementina Chéry, who founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester 25 years ago, after her 15-year-old son was shot and killed, said she and Sacks are bound by their shared experience.
“What binds us together is that we have both been impacted,” she said. “We have both been impacted by the worst that any family can go through. Someone we loved was killed by someone that somebody else loves.”
Chéry, who will speak at the launch event Monday along with public officials including Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston and Attorney General Maura Healey, said she was honored to be included.
“There is focus on community. They are investing in community. They are not just waiting for something bad to happen.”
Healey has made strong enforcement of the state’s tough gun laws a key part of her office’s mission.
In an e-mail, she said, “we understand that strong gun laws save lives. . . . But we need to do more to keep people safe, and that starts by getting the best possible data and prevention research from this new center at MGH.”
John Rosenthal, who cofounded the advocacy group Stop Handgun Violence, hailed the creation of the center.
“Unlike chronic diseases without a cure, gun violence is preventable through proven public health policies,” Rosenthal said in an e-mail. “As a result of our effective gun laws and regulations, Massachusetts is a model for the nation. Who better than MGH to research and promote evidence-based public health policies that reduce gun violence?”