One month since a gunman opened fire on a Las Vegas concert — killing 58 people and wounding 500 in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history — health care professionals are demanding greater interventions and more research into the public health crisis of gun violence.
“Las Vegas was a terrible tragedy,” said Dr. Henry Dorkin, the president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “[We] need to study issues like this to learn how we can prevent them from happening. There has been a litany of gun related tragedies over the past decade and we have to do something to stop this.”
Since the Las Vegas massacre, four of the leading scholarly medical journals — the Annals of Internal Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine and PLOS Medicine — have published an editorial demanding that physicians and the medical community do more to raise awareness around gun violence, increase funding for research, and intervene with patients about firearm safety.
“As health care professionals, we don’t throw up our hands in defeat because a disease seems to be incurable,” the editorial reads. “We work to incrementally and continuously reduce its burden. That’s our job.”
Over the past month, these journals have published a handful of firearm studies and editorials to further inform the debate around gun violence risk factors.
Many of the studies already were slated for publication in October, but the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S. make their publication all the more urgentsaid Dr. Darren Taichman, executive deputy editor for Annals of Internal Medicine.
“We definitely need more research in this area. When you look at the magnitude of the problem relative to how much focus there is in research, the gap is quite remarkable,” Dr. Taichman said.
In particular, an absence of federal funding has stymied efforts in the research community, with many medical professionals blaming the continued influence of the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which prevents federal funds from being used for studies that would “advocate or promote gun control.”
Following the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were shot dead, President Barack Obama sought to subvert the Dickey Amendment with an executive order, directing the Health and Human Services Department and the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence.
“We need much greater focus on understanding the risks for firearm related injury so we can test interventions and then reassess what we do.” Dr. Taichman said.
More than 36,000 people died from firearm injuries in 2015, according to the most recent CDC data.
While mass shootings garner a spike in media attention, the majority of gun violence and injuries take place in the home or a criminal manner, with suicides accounting for more than 60 percent of gun-related deaths and homicides 30 percent.
The medical community has said that such staggering fatality numbers require a comprehensive response to assess risks of gun violence and test interventions.
One such intervention is for physicians to talk to patients about proper gun storage within the privacy of the exam room. In an Annals editorial, Dr. Taichman and his colleagues have asked physicians across the country to make a public commitment to have these conversations.
This initiative is not without controversy. In February, a federal appeals court struck down a Florida law that prevented physicians from talking with their patients about gun safety, with the court saying the law infringed on the first amendment rights of doctors.
To encourage physicians to have these conversations, Annals also published information on legal protections for doctors to talk about gun safety and educational materials about broaching the subject with their patients.
In Massachusetts, the state Attorney General’s Office went a step further, partnering with the Massachusetts Medical Society to encourage and inform physicians across the state about the importance of talking to patients about gun safety.
“The vast majority of gun owners are deeply committed to gun safety, and this partnership is about giving them information and advice to make safe decisions for themselves and their families,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in an email to The Washington Times. “We are grateful to our partners in law enforcement and the medical community for helping to make this first-of-its-kind partnership such a success.”
Dr. Dorkin, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and a Boston pediatrician, said that unless the question is asked, physicians can’t help the problem.
“If someone says, ‘I’ve got a 303 hunting rifle and a hand gun,’ then those both have the potential to be involved in a tragic accident,” Dr. Dorkin said. “Right now we think it’s one of the more effective tools we have in addressing this issue. But unless you bring this up, you can make no headway whatsoever.”