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Gun Violence is a Public Health Crisis

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By Dr. Sheldon Teperman

As Director of one of New York City's busiest trauma centers at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, treating gunshot wound patients is an almost daily part of my job. Recently I addressed a meeting of fellow New York City emergency room doctors and trainees, and I asked them: "Do you see what I see - needless violence and loss of life every day?" The answer was a resounding yes.

The issue of gun violence has become a public health crisis in America. There are more than 31,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. There are 12,000 murders by guns yearly. That's 34 Americans murdered by guns every day, and nine of those are children. Like a flat line on an EKG, these deaths have kept coming at a steady rate for years. More than 71,000 Americans survive gun injuries but are left to deal with the physical and psychological damage of such violence.

In his address to the survivors of the Newtown shootings, President Barack Obama asked: "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"

As a member of both New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns Initiative, I have met with the families of victims from the shootings in Tucson, Arizona and Aurora, Colorado. I've said to these grieving family members and survivors that I wish we were more successful in our efforts to control gun violence so I could have less experience dealing with these tragic situations.

We must change! From our perspective as doctors on the front lines of this violence, we must raise up our voices and Demand a Plan to end gun violence, as Mayors Against Illegal Guns and grassroots supporters are calling on the President and Congress to do. States with stricter laws have fewer gun deaths, according to the Violence Policy Center. It's clear that gun safety laws work to prevent death and injury.

There is hope. President Obama has appointed a bipartisan commission, headed by Vice President Biden, to look seriously at what can be done. The President, a Constitutional law scholar, knows well that reasonable gun safety laws are welcomed by the Second Amendment, not prohibited by it.

I hope the fix will include the requirement for background checks every time a gun is sold in America. Right now 40 percent of the time there is none. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) must contain a record of every felon and every individual with a legally clear history of mental illness with the potential for violence. We must ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines. We must use new and innovative technologies like "microstamping" on semi-automatic weapons to give law enforcement the tools they need to apprehend those that would murder with a gun.

Finally, trauma centers have an important role to play in the reduction of youth violence. HHC's own Dr. Robert Gore, working in the Kings County Hospital Emergency Department, has designed a groundbreaking program to interdict youth violence at its core. It starts when an injured teenager or young adult is brought to the trauma center. That young person undergoes a risk assessment for violence at home and at school, and is linked to a gamut of services aimed at reducing the high rates of violence among teenagers and young adults. We must replicate programs like this that work throughout the country.

We in the medical field are witness to the victims, families and survivors who bear the legacy of gun trauma and death. We must be a part of the dialogue and thus, part of the change. Because, as the President said, "What choice do we have?"


February 2013

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