In the wake of too many gun tragedies, we need to do more than just talk if we want to understand how to prevent gun violence. Remarkably, lawmakers have done worse than nothing on this issue. Both Democrats and Republicans have gone out of their way to block efforts to prevent so many tragic deaths. Here's how:
We have gutted funding for research on preventing firearms deaths and we have silenced experts who could help prevent accidental gun deaths, suicides and homicidal firearm deaths. Since 1996, appropriations bills have gone out of their way to make sure that, "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control."
As a result the CDC website provides no information on how to prevent firearm violence, despite providing links to info on preventing falls, passenger safety, fireworks, wearing seatbelts and preventing accidental poisonings. Guns are off limits, with no funding for research, no recommendations on how to use them safely or keep them out of dangerous hands.
Shockingly, even the Accountable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) didn't miss an opportunity to specifically prohibit health care providers from preventing gun deaths. An amendment was introduced and co-sponsored by senate majority leader Harry Reid that states
A. "Wellness and health programs... may not require disclosure or collection of any information" on gun or ammunition ownership;"
B. "The Secretary of Health and Human Services (or Medicaid/Medicare programs)... has no authority "to collect information on ownership or use of firearms and ammunition;"
C. Nor can the Act authorize health providers to maintain records of individual firearm ownership or possession of a firearm or ammunition.
As a physician, it's unsettling to be told by politicians what questions are appropriate to ask. Its even more concerning that if we are concerned about our patient's mental health or safety around firearms, there is no reliable way to identify whether the patient has access to firearms. Gun violence is a public health issue. It accounts for more than 30,000 deaths annually. That's slightly fewer than the number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents, which we research extensively. We've saved lives by studying the traffic deaths and mandating airbags, seatbelts and making informed changes to traffic laws. Gun deaths deserve similar attention.
Firearms result in more deaths than the annual number of deaths from Prostate cancer, Leukemia, Pancreatic, Brain or Oral cancer. While we actively support research to save lives of people with cancer, we systematically block any investigation or intervention into ways to slow deaths from firearms. We need to study and be open to public health interventions to limit handgun deaths and violence.
Even staunch N.R.A. gun advocates argue that we should keep guns away from "evil" people or people who appear unstable and at risk of homicide or suicide. Doctors have a responsibility to assess our patient's risks for death and disability. This includes inquiring about smoking, seat belt use, bike helmets, and yes, gun ownership. Preventing health providers from asking and recording this information is creating a double standard for guns that is different from anything else in our society. This blind protectionism is both irrational and dangerous. Nurses, doctors and voters should speak out. The National Physicians Alliance has issued a call on behalf of health providers for sensible gun control and a ban on assault rifles.
We need research to guide these decisions. Otherwise how can we judge any plan, even one to place armed guards in schools? We can all start by demanding a plan, but lets also demand some research and thoughtful guidance.