On Saturday, the national March for Our Lives will sweep across the country.
Americans will stand in protest of gun violence — a momentum sparked by the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting, the latest in a string of senseless and fundamentally preventable tragedies.
If history is prologue, it won’t be the last.
Before Parkland, there was Las Vegas, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech. . . . The list goes on.
The Florida school massacre left 17 people dead. This is the highly publicized, most visible tip of an iceberg. More than 33,000 people die from gun violence every year in the United States — that’s nearly 100 per day on average — and public health experts agree this number underestimates the magnitude of the problem.
As a parent and as an American, I am heartbroken. As a doctor, as a healer, and as the leader of a major medical institution dedicated to enhancing human health and well-being, I am outraged.
Gun violence is a public health crisis and an epidemic that reverberates across our communities and takes a tremendous economic toll on our health care system. Physicians who treat those injuries on the front lines have a vivid sensory and visceral understanding of the destruction gun violence inflicts on the human body, mind, and spirit. These experiences are captured eloquently in two pieces penned by Peter Masiakos and Cornelia Griggs, pediatric trauma surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital, and by Chana Sacks , a physician-researcher for whom gun violence became heartbreakingly personal.
As physicians and as researchers, we ask ourselves: What can we do?
Our mission as physician-scientists dedicated to the preservation of human life and the prevention of suffering compels us to address this acute public health priority. We must do so in our clinics when we inquire with patients about gun ownership and safety; we must do so in our research, by asking probing questions about the prevalence of guns and the settings that predispose to injury or violence; and we must do so in our training of the next generation of physicians, so that they can be protectors of public and individual health. Our professional and civic duty also compels us to advocate for policies that can stem the tide of preventable deaths and injuries.
First, we must work to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Passed in 1996, under pressure from gun lobbyists, the Dickey Amendment severely curtails the federal government’s capacity to fund research on firearm injuries — a chilling effect that has rippled beyond the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and institutions like mine and has handicapped scientists’ ability to collect, access, and interpret data on firearm injuries and support meaningful reform. Relative to other leading causes of death, gun violence receives the least research attention and is the second least funded area of scientific inquiry. It is telling that although gun violence claims nearly as many lives as sepsis, it gets less than 1 percent of the funding allocated to bloodstream infections.
Despite this “gag” order on federally funded research, dedicated scientists have relentlessly pursued investigation in this field. This work has yielded some illuminating insights.
Research shows that stronger firearm policies in general, and stronger laws regulating permits to purchase and background checks, can substantially decrease firearm homicides.
Research also shows that states with the most firearm legislation have the lowest rate of both firearm suicides and homicides.
Research also indicates that keeping a gun at home increases the risk of both firearm homicide and firearm suicide. Quantifying the magnitude of these grim odds, scientists have found that the risk of dying from homicide nearly doubles in homes with guns, while suicide risk rises 10-fold compared to homes without guns.
Yet there is so much we simply don’t know and can’t know. Many dimensions of gun violence remain woefully understudied, many critical questions unanswerable.
Restoring federal support for research on firearm injuries is an acute priority, but in the meantime, we mustn’t remain idle. Academic medical centers must play a central role in addressing the spectrum of the epidemic — from health care policy to prevention to treatment.
Understanding the causes of human suffering and finding ways to address them is the very nucleus of our mission as physicians and healers. Stemming the pain and suffering caused by firearm injuries is part of that mission. Anything less would be a failure to deliver on our responsibilities to society.
George Q. Daley is dean of Harvard Medical School.