After a shooting at Mercy Hospital in Chicago killed three people, including two hospital workers, doctors across the country are continuing to speak out against gun violence — and they’re pushing back on the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) admonition that they should “stay in their lane.”
Earlier this month, the NRA responded to an Annals of Internal Medicine position paper on the urgency of reducing firearm fatalities with a tweet directing “self-important anti-gun doctors” to “stay in their lane.” The backlash from the medical community was swift and strong, with many doctors taking to social media to share their own experiences with gun violence — from treating trauma and suicide victims to counseling patients dealing with the psychological fallout of gun violence years later — under the hashtag #ThisIsOurLane.
“This one tweet from the NRA galvanized physicians into a grassroots movement in a way that nothing else has,” says Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. “Five years ago, the reaction from doctors would not have been anywhere as strong as it has been in this context. There’s been a real shift in our public consciousness about the centrality of medicine and health in dealing with guns.”
The movement reached a new level this week, after a gunman killed a police officer, a doctor and a pharmacy resident at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. (The shooter also died at the scene.) The shooting happened to coincide with the publication of an Annals of Internal Medicine editorial affirming that gun violence does, indeed, concern physicians, and that doctors are “going to stay in our lane and keep moving forward.”
That’s a sentiment shared by doctors across the medical field. One is Dr. Heather Sher, a Florida-based diagnostic radiologist who earlier this year wrote about her experience treating Parkland shooting victims and co-wrote an open letter calling on the NRA to join doctors in working to reduce gun deaths. Sher says 38,000 doctors have signed that letter.
“I’ve spent my entire career in level-one trauma centers,” Sher says. “Handgun violence is bread-and-butter medicine in this country, and it shouldn’t be that way. Every shooting is a preventable cause of death. And doctors see it as a public health crisis.”
Sher says the rising number of high-profile shootings, as well as a growing acceptance of gun violence as a public health issue, have prompted more doctors to speak out.
“It’s such a polarizing issue that I think doctors have stayed silent and in the background for a long time, but that’s changing,” Sher says. “The status quo isn’t working.”
The NRA’s tweet also angered many physicians into action, says Dr. Linda Girgis, a clinical assistant professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “The NRA’s statement to physicians was offensive to many, because we’re the ones who are dealing with the fallout of guns,” she says. “We treat [victims] in the ER when they come in. We treat them years later when they’re still having problems from it. It really set off a lot of doctors.”
The NRA did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.
The path forward, doctors say, will require widespread acceptance of gun violence as a public health issue, and research funding to match. That funding has traditionally been difficult to secure, since a 1996 Congressional provision prohibited the use of federal dollars to promote gun control, effectively freezing many funding sources for prevention research.
The new Annals editorial, however, announced that the journal and the American College of Physicians are teaming up with the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine (AFFIRM), a nonprofit that works to provide funding for firearm injury prevention research, to raise money and create science-backed recommendations for reducing gun injuries and fatalities.
Dr. Megan Ranney, a Brown University emergency medicine physician and chief research officer of AFFIRM who co-wrote the open letter along with Sher, says such work is pivotal to saving lives that might otherwise be claimed by guns.
“Gun violence is indisputably an epidemic in the United States, and as doctors, we don’t just treat epidemics, we also know how to fix them,” Ranney says. “We’ve decreased car crash deaths not by taking away cars, but by putting in place things that make cars safer, like seat belts and airbags, and by educating drivers. We know that we can do the same for gun violence.”
One crucial area, Ranney says, is helping train physicians to identify and treat people who pose a risk to themselves or others, ideally preventing gun violence in the first place. But solutions to such a wide-ranging problem will have to be similarly diverse — which is why, Ranney says, it’s important to have an array of medical professionals contributing their expertise.
“#ThisIsOurLane came at a moment when many of us have been working on this for years,” she says. “Many of us were catalyzed by Sandy Hook, or by Pulse, or by Parkland or by Las Vegas. This is another catalyst toward physicians from across the political spectrum talking about how this is an issue that impacts us both personally and professionally every day.”
That shift is overdue, Galea says. “If this isn’t a public health issue, why are so many people dying from it?” Galea says. “It’s as simple as that.”
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