Preventing gun violence is all about saving lives

Steven J. Stack, MD , Former President

When dozens of physicians lined up to testify at the 2016 AMA Annual Meeting this week, the remarks were impassioned and derived from lifetimes of treating victims of gun violence. While this topic has become highly politicized in our country, the passion in the room stemmed from the urgent need to take a stance on a vital public health issue—one that could help save thousands of lives and prevent needless tragedies that affect so many families in our nation.

One of the remarkable things about the AMA policymaking process is how truly democratic it is. The AMA House of Delegates includes representatives from every corner of the country, from 118 specialties and every kind of practice setting. Delegates range from young medical students to veterans of the profession. Every perspective is included, and everyone gets a voice.

Hearing medical students and physicians from so many backgrounds and points of view share their perspectives spoke to the importance of intervening to stop gun-related violence and how it gets at the very heart of our calling as physicians.

We heard from physicians who practice in places with high rates of violence—including a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Washington, D.C., inner city Wilmington, Del., and downtown Los Angeles. We heard from one physician who was among the medical responders for the Boston Marathon bombing and another from Orlando who was among the physicians who were paged regarding the mass casualties and injuries from the tragic shooting there last week.

One physician testified that she had treated so many gunshot victims as a resident that she was told to stop tracking the head and neck surgeries she performed because she had more than enough to demonstrate her competency to complete her training.

A young emergency physician shared that trying to revive gunshot victims and treat the wounded had become shockingly routine for him. What’s more, he noted that even as an academic physician treating such a high number of victims, he doesn’t have the ability to turn to data to examine how these injuries might be prevented.

Many physicians from states that traditionally are highly supportive of gun ownership also expressed the need to get behind any evidence-based policy that would help prevent violence from befalling our patients.

A senior delegate perhaps characterized the AMA policymaking discussion best when he testified that it wasn’t about questioning second amendment rights but about conducting research to better understand the issue because we currently suffer from a lack of data to look at gun violence from an epidemiological point of view.

AMA policy guides our advocacy efforts for patients and physicians and at this meeting, we built on existing policy with several key developments:

  • Officially calling gun violence in the United States a public health crisis that requires a comprehensive public health response and solution
  • Directing the AMA to actively lobby Congress to overturn legislation that for 20 years has prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence
  • Calling for background checks and a waiting period for all firearms purchasers, whereas previous policy only dealt with handguns

These are very important steps to tackle a public health crisis. It truly is an issue that affects us all and demands our best efforts to address it.

In addition to the expanded AMA policy, we’ve also been hard at work over the last few years in the nation’s courts to preserve freedom of speech in the exam room for physicians to talk to patients and family members about safety.

A recent law in Florida would effectively put a gag on physicians, preventing them from discussing gun safety with their patients. This kind of counseling is especially important for families with young children because it can prevent accidental gun-related injuries and deaths. It seems like every time you see the news, another child is accidentally shot or accidentally shoots someone else because of unsafe gun storage practices.

The AMA and several other medical associations have been fighting this law, and the case is scheduled to be heard by a rare 11-judge panel beginning June 21 in Atlanta.

It’s significant that so many physicians at the 2016 AMA Annual Meeting gave a standing ovation upon passage of our new policy: It represents our common, unwavering commitment to protect our patients and improve the health of the nation in the most meaningful ways possible.