There have been at least 1,318 gun deaths in the United States since the horrific shootings of children at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14. And that number — tallied bySlate and @GunDeaths as part of an interactive, crowd-sourced project — is probably not complete.
Fueled by mass shootings including the Sandy Hook tragedy and the deadly shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Co., last July, the gun violence debate has once again come to the public health forefront.
The doctors who treat gun violence victims in emergency rooms around the country — from single-victim shootings to mass killings — have responded to these tragedies in different ways. For Comilla Sasson, MD, an attending physician at University of Colorado Hospital who treated victims the night of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, preventing gun deaths has become a personal crusade.
Dr. Sasson wasn’t supposed to work that Thursday July night, but a colleague called in sick. Sasson started her shift at 11 p.m., and what began as a typical busy, crowded night in the emergency department took a turn when the staff received a call about the shooting.
“We expected one to two, maybe three victims and had 23 victims that came in within an hour to two hours of the event,” Sasson says. One patient was pronounced dead upon arriving at the hospital. The other 22 survived.
“I’m sure anyone who has lived through something like never thinks it’s going to be your ER, or your community, or your school,” Sasson says. “I think these last few months specifically have really reignited a lot of that flame in terms of realizing, as doctors, we need to go out and advocate for our patients and our communities.”
What Doctors Can Do About Gun Safety
This month, in response to Sandy Hook, President Obama unveiled a plan for reducing gun violence across the country in which he affirmed the role physicians must play — the role Sasson describes — in protecting the safety of their patients and the broader community.
The plan clarifies that no law prevents health care providers from warning the authorities about potential threats of violence. Additionally, it states that doctors and health care providers have a right to ask patients about firearms and safe gun storage. (Some have mistakenly claimed that the Affordable Care Act prohibits doctors from asking their patients about guns and gun safety, according to the full text of the president’s plan.)
Sasson regularly asks patients if they have a gun at home.
“That not only affects their personal safety if they are suicidal but also, if they are homicidal, it could affect their entire community or their family,” Dr. Sasson told MedPage Today in the video above.
Shari Barkin, MD, chief of general pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., co-authored a 2008 study that examined gun interventions in routine office visit.
“We found that if we talked about firearm safety the way we often talk about storing medicine safely, taking things out of the hands of children that shouldn’t be in the hands of children, we were able to improve the safe storage of firearms by twice as much,” Dr. Barkin told MedPage Today in the video. “That is significant.”
“The reality is that there are guns in many homes and that is not something that we as physicians may be able to change or should we change,” Edward Barksdale, MD, chief of pediatric surgery at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, told MedPage Today in the video. Dr. Barksdale is part of a task force on gun violence organized by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. “But we definitely need to change the way guns are viewed in the home. A gun is something that requires great responsibility. Families should educate about not touching guns … We need increased recognition that a gun is dangerous and not only in the home, it can be taken from the home. And that’s really our first obligation as physicians.”
A number of physician groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Physicians, have released statements in support the president’s plan and the steps doctors can take to reduce gun violence.