Editor’s Note: Joseph Sakran is a trauma surgeon and director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Follow him @JosephSakran. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
He had just graduated high school when he was shot in the back of the head, execution style. His mother said she had just thrown him a graduation party. You could see the pride in her eyes, as tears flowed down her face.
It took every ounce of strength I had to remain composed and provide her with the support she needed. I didn’t have the courage to tell her that her son and I had more in common than she realized.
When I was his age, I was nearly killed after being shot in the throat with a .38 caliber bullet. I survived. But this woman’s son died. To this day I continue to ask myself why I was given this second chance.
Many of my patients are not given the same second chance I have had. And the worst part of my job is having to speak with mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers – and telling them their loved one has died. The memory I have of their faces, the piercing cries I hear at night, and the blood that has stained my scrubs and the operating room floor are reasons enough for the medical community to be a critical part of the solution.
While mass shootings like the one in Thousand Oaks, California, last week occupy much of the media’s attention, it is important to note that these large-scale tragedies comprise less than 2% of the gun violence we see in this country.
Meanwhile, every day, in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, young black men fall victim to gun violence at a disproportionate rate. Their stories often go untold.
The medical community – including nurses, medics, technicians, pharmacists, social workers and doctors – stand on the front lines of caring for victims of gun violence. We see the physical damage inflicted by gunshot wounds, and we also witness the pain of those victims they leave behind. So you might imagine our surprise on November 7 when the National Rifle Association told us to stay in our lane and not get involved in issues of gun violence that go beyond treating the bodily damage that results.
That type of message indicates the NRA is not serious about addressing this public health crisis that we face. If it were, it would realize that a complex issue such as gun violence requires engagement of stakeholders from all walks of life and with diverse perspectives on the issue.
Furthermore, to state, as the NRA did, that “the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves,” ignores the efforts that have been made by medical professionals to engage with those outside our own field. In January 2017, Ronny Stewart, trauma medical director of the American College of Surgeons, told me the ACS sat down with the leadership of the NRA to discuss opportunities to work together to combat gun violence.
It is also worth noting that the health care community contains gun owners and NRA members, many of whom have expressed to me their astonishment at the idea that we, the medical community, should not provide solutions to reduce firearm injury and death in this country.
Our role in aiding gunshot victims is seen in every hospital across America – and is now, as a result of the outpouring against the NRA’s tweet, being more fully recognized by the global community all across social media. Shortly after the NRA tweeted its comments, the Twitter account @ThisIsOurLane exploded. While the stories are heart-wrenching and difficult to read, and the images shared from inside trauma centers were beyond words, they are mission critical to demonstrating to the public why our role in gun violence is front and center.
Despite the fact that the NRA has attempted to undermine and dismiss the medical community, we are willing to rise above the fray to express how serious we are about ending gun violence in this country. A recent open letter composed by the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine, or AFFIRM, on behalf of the American Health Care Professionals, is inviting the NRA to be part of the solution.
Megan Ranney, M.D., MPH, chief research officer of AFFIRM and one of the signers of the letter, recently told me: “As the professionals who manage this epidemic, we bear witness to every trauma and attempt to resuscitate, successful or not.”
Let me be clear: We are also not anti-gun – we are anti-bullet hole. It is time to stop polarizing this issue and start developing action-oriented solutions that will end gun violence in America.