Like many of us, I have been struggling to reconcile my love for everything good about this country with the senseless gun violence that terrorizes us today. In the wake of each shooting, I vow to do more—to speak up as a surgeon, as a former victim of gun violence, and simply as a fellow human—but the words escape me. How do we make meaning out of such shameful tragedy?
My first and most intimate experience with gun violence occurred at the age of 5. “I’ve been shot.”
Those three words, and the events immediately preceding them, changed my family’s world forever. It was 1988, and we had just moved into a new house in the hills. Building a house in the previously barren hills was an endeavor that upset many in the predominantly Caucasian community. And so, on a warm summer night, a gunman broke into our property, broke the glass in the kitchen window, and shot my father multiple times. Ever calm in chaos, he climbed the stairs dripping blood, informed my mother of what had occurred, and hid my sister and me under a dresser desk before calling the police.
Shards from his eyeglasses would wedge themselves into his cornea and change his vision forever. Other, less visible wounds would bleed into our lives over time. To this day, in my thirties, in the darkness of my own home, I still at times fully expect to turn a corner face-to-face with an armed intruder.
Still, we chose not to live in fear or anger. After a 3-month stint in L.A. where my dad grew a thick beard and purchased a bullet-proof car, he insisted we move back into that house. The message was clear: we would stand tall and persevere. Not only did we persevere, we thrived; that home is where my sister and I were married, where innumerable farm animals have reproduced, and where hundreds of trees bear the weight of many fruits each season.
Fast-forward several years to my surgical residency, where gunshot victims showed up in our busy north Philadelphia ER every day of the week. Perhaps as a result of my own history, each penetrating trauma victim is imprinted on my mind: the 12-year-old schoolgirl in plaid uniform and braids who arrived D.O.A.; the young prostitute in shock, eyelids closing shut for the last time to reveal thick false lashes; the teenage boy thrown hastily out of a friend’s backseat to the E.R. doorway, whose heart could not be massaged or resuscitated back to existence. What was I doing to help reduce these preventable deaths? The problem was too vast, too deep, too messy, many times involving children with no sense of purpose or belonging other than the gang they pledged their lives to.
Both of those experiences lie in stark contrast to the mass shootings that plague us today. I have never cared for a patient shot with a military-style weapon. I have never cared for a victim of a mass shooting, although with AR-15s, the likelihood of surviving a bullet is low. But I know we as a society can do better. I know that apathy towards mass shootings, or opposing efforts to stop them, is not constitutional. I know that the majority of Americans do not own guns, and that of those who do, only 7% of them are members of the NRA. I know that young people are fearlessly mobilizing in this era of social media, senseless killing and alternative facts, and they are roaring to be heard. I believe they are our future, and they may very well accomplish what we have failed to.
These facts give me hope.
Out of our darkest moments come our brightest light, and there is much we can do. We can support bills that prohibit assault weapons, as no civilian needs an AR-15—this is common sense, not a constitutional loophole. We can sign up to be Sandy Hook Promise Leaders, and initiate their prevention programs that address alienation of at-risk youth, empower school children to speak up, and educate people on the warning signs of citizens who are at risk of hurting themselves or others. We can support H.R. 4909, the STOP School Violence Act. We can support legislation to keep guns out of the hands of individuals with criminal or mental health backgrounds, and institute more stringent policies for gun owners to obtain and maintain possession of their weapons. Because consumers have more power than we may realize, we can also support businesses that stand for responsible gun policies, and vociferously shun those that don’t. And we can advocate for changing the very fabric of a political system that values financial gain above basic humanity.
Gun violence is about public health, not politics. When kindergarteners and high schoolers alike cannot attend school in America without being gunned down by military-style weapons, and any public place becomes a target for mass killing, we need to recognize that this is not a partisan or constitutional rights issue. Gun violence kills 96 people each day in this country; 7 of them are children. Over twice as many are injured.
As physicians, we are uniquely positioned to stand up for social welfare, and the time is now. We have a voice, and we must use it. Our very lives, and those of our children, depend on it.