As medical community speaks out on gun violence, Democrats vow to push legislation
As the chorus of medical professionals weighing in on the gun debate grows louder, House Democrats are vowing to push gun legislation and funding for research with their new majority in the next Congress.
After an Oct. 27 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, a Nov. 7 shooting in a country-music bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and then another at a hospital in Chicago two weeks ago, the medical community took to social media to express outrage, creating hashtags and Twitter accounts dedicated to speaking out about gun violence and calling for movement on gun policies. Now, Democrats in Washington seem to be responding.
Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), vice chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, told me in an interview that she’s spoken about gun policies with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who won her party’s nomination last week to serve as speaker in the next Congress.
“From listening to and speaking with leader Pelosi … gun violence prevention strategies and bills will be on the list of priorities,” Kelly said.
The Illinois Democrat held a news conference last week calling for bipartisan solutions to gun violence, alongside Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.); incoming Democrat from Florida Debbie Mucarsel-Powell; and several medical professionals. The group called for funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence and for federal legislation on universal background checks, among other ideas.
During the news conference, Pallone, the likely next chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee, said he plans to authorize legislation to fund gun violence research.
"I’m telling you today … we on Energy and Commerce Committee, we will make it our business when we take office after January 3 that we’re going to authorize legislation that we have not been able to move because of Republicans,” he said. “That we’ll make sure that kind of funding is available through the CDC.”
Pallone also suggested the committee could take up one of the bills Kelly has introduced to mandate that the U.S. surgeon general submit an annual report to Congress on the effects of gun violence on public health.
During the news conference, Kelly lamented the lack of progress thus far on gun-related legislation and pointed to the GOP as the reason for any stall. “Despite the fact that we’ve had a mass shooting nearly every day in 2018, this Republican-controlled Congress has done nothing for the last eight years to prevent gun violence,” she said.
She applauded the doctors and nurses who have been speaking out on this issue. “They have seen things that would make most of us sick,” Kelly said. “I could not be prouder to welcome them to Capitol Hill because they want to be part of the solution. They, like House Democrats and many of my Republican colleagues, want to stop the violence with commonsense, bipartisan solutions.”
At last week's news conference, the doctors in the room chimed in calling for more research and for effective gun policies, telling story after story of toddlers who were accidentally shot and killed by family members, of domestic violence that leads to gun violence, and of their own experiences in trauma and operating rooms. One surgeon, Joseph Sakran, shared the details of his own near-death experience after being shot in the neck at age 17.
They stood behind a lectern with a sign that read “This is our lane,” a phrase that has been repeated by doctors and nurses on social media in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the National Rifle Association tweeted telling doctors who tried to speak out about gun policies to “stay in their lane.”
But the medical community has responded in kind. One forensic pathologist tweeted that the issue “isn’t just my lane. It’s my [expletive] highway:”
Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, launched a recent Twitter account @ThisIsOurLane to share the perspective of doctors who encounter gun violence on a daily basis.
“This is really in my mind a movement of not just one individual but the entire medical community saying enough is enough,” Sakran told me.
At its interim meeting in November, delegates from the American Medical Association adopted a policy calling for stronger background checks at the state level.
Specifically, the policy seeks to “encourage the enactment of state laws requiring the reporting of all classes of prohibited individuals, as defined by state and federal law, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System” and "support federal funding to provide grants to states to improve NICS reporting.”
“We see this as an epidemic and public health crisis and we think intervening as early as possible is smarter than just building more intensive care units for people who are either killed or damaged and badly hurt by the violence,” AMA President Barbara McAneny said in an interview. “We need to increase firearm background checks … so we know if there are people who have a history of violent crimes, if they’re at risk of hurting someone else or themselves, we can look at all those factors.”
Recent research points to why what the AMA is calling for may be needed. The initial findings from a comprehensive survey of firearms and violence conducted by the University of California at Davis Violence Prevention Research Program found nearly 1 in 5 people who purchased a recent firearm in California reported they did not undergo a background check.
Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, a researcher who led the survey, told me this was an unexpected finding because the state has mandated background checks for nearly all firearm purchases since 1991. She said the findings suggest “we have some more digging in terms of research to do to figure out what’s going on here, so we can actually make more informed claims about how to improve policy.”
“We know at the individual level that comprehensive background check policies work, that they prevent future firearm violence at this level," she said.
Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program, said that background checks are meant to prohibit gun purchases by those with criminal convictions, those with histories of domestic violence or who have restraining orders against them, or people with mental-health concerns who have been involuntarily committed to treatment.
He added the “background check is really only as good as the data it’s run on. We know that there is massive underreporting, but we don’t always have the estimates of how massive the underreporting problem is.”
Wintemute pointed to another recent study from UC Davis and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that found in the ten years following the implementation of California’s law, there were no changes in the rate of firearm or nonfirearm homicides -- and while there was a decrease in firearm-related suicide rates, the same decrease was seen in nonfirearm-related suicides.
He said more research needs to be done. “A study like this one in California is going to be interpreted [as] background checks are useless, and that’s not what we’re saying,” he said. “What we’re learning is this policy, which makes intuitive sense, is not well implemented.”
He pointed to the new AMA policy as a productive step. “What the AMA is endorsing is a continued effort to improve the quality and completeness of reporting so that the background checks will be run on accurate data and accomplish its purpose.”