March 5, 2018
Speaking as a physician, our nation’s level of gun violence is a public health crisis
To the editor:
I have never considered myself a political person. I generally favor talking about innocuous topics such as music, college football or baseball trivia, and my introverted nature typically causes me to avoid controversy at the risk of offending another individual or casting myself in an unwanted spotlight.
Due to what I experienced recently along with the events of the past few months, however, I feel compelled to speak out. I realize that my message in the subsequent paragraphs poses the risk of alienating those of differing opinion and perhaps damaging some longstanding relationships. I certainly hope that will not prove to be the case, and I pray for understanding if you disagree with my position. Nevertheless, it is a risk that I must take because I cannot keep silent any longer on this particular issue. There is simply too much at stake.
I am a physician, and I serve as the director for an internal medicine residency training program at a large academic medical center in our city. My role as program director provides me the incredible opportunity to interact daily with young physicians as our facility trains the next generation of healthcare professionals for our community and beyond. Outside of my work as program director, I recently started a book discussion group at my church for several of my medical residents. For the past several weeks, a small group of resident physicians have joined me on Wednesday evenings to discuss the book When Breath Becomes Air, by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. These sessions have afforded rich discussions on how our individual faith intersects with our work as physicians which have deepened my connection with my residents and reaffirmed my motivation to work in healthcare. One of my medical residents (for the sake of anonymity I will refer to him as James) has been a faithful participant in these sessions. During our first meeting, James shared with the group how he was inspired to pursue a career in medicine by his uncle, a physician in the Midwest.
Last month, James’s uncle was shot and killed in a senseless tragedy in a hospital parking lot as he was walking to his car. Later, the gunman turned the weapon on himself. The motive of the murder-suicide is not known, and I am not sure that it really matters at this point.
Like everyone, I have been deeply affected by the wave of gun violence in our nation. The recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas, Las Vegas, Charleston, Aurora, Newtown and too many other places have left me heartbroken and searching for answers and meaning amidst such apparent evil. This wave of national tragedy has been coupled with a record number of homicides this past year within my own beloved city.
Like some, I have been bewildered and deeply concerned at the lack of social and political response towards any reasonable gun control legislation in response to these unspeakable tragic events. Like some, I am frustrated and outraged that common sense gun control legislation seemingly is being blocked by one special-interest organization and a highly vocal minority which apparently wield incredible power over our nation’s political machine and cloud the judgment of our society’s leaders. Yet, the status-quo is clearly not working. By enacting some reasonable societal and legislative changes, what do we have to lose?
As I listened to James sob uncontrollably in my office the afternoon of his uncle’s murder, I promised myself that I would no longer remain silent and that now is a time for action.
Speaking as a physician, our nation’s level of gun violence is a public health crisis. The statistics are clear. More guns equal more deaths from guns, and the United States leads the world in this horrible, gut-wrenching statistic. Numerous highly respected medical organizations, including the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have issued consensus statements calling for common sense gun control legislation including mandatory background checks, registration of all firearms, and bans on all assault weapons, high capacity magazines, and armor-piercing bullets.
Let me be clear. I do not think there is anything unspiritual about owning a gun or knowing how to properly use one, but I must admit that I do not see how anyone could be opposed to these regulations regardless of their political affiliation. I have read and heard the counter-arguments to gun control legislation. Truth be told, they all make little sense to me. I understand and support the concept of personal freedom, but these rights must be protected with a level of discernment and common sense. As a physician, I am troubled by the fact that some will defend the right of anyone to own a gun but not support the right of everyone (including gun violence victims) to have appropriate access to healthcare. Instead, rational gun control legislation must be aligned with improved access to affordable healthcare, including mental health care, along with increased awareness, understanding and support for those living with mental illness.
When we experience an unexpected death in the hospital, we examine closely all the factors that may have contributed to the fatal outcome with the goal of improving the systems of care delivery and reducing the risk of a similar outcome affecting an individual patient in the future. Although healthcare remains far from perfect, there is a consistent effort to improve continually with the goal of making care safer for everyone. Indeed, this same process of improvement with the goal of advancing safety exists in nearly every industry from nuclear power to NASCAR.
Sadly, however, in the face of an overwhelming increase in gun violence in our nation, there has been zero legislative response and/or societal willingness to change. Unsurprisingly, the destructive trend in deaths from gun violence continues as a result. This adamant opposition to reflect, learn and enact well-reasoned change in response to tragedy is frightening, irresponsible and appallingly shameful.
As a Christian, I feel a moral imperative to speak out against gun violence and submit a call for action within our faith community. As I read and interpret Scripture, I feel strongly that the lack of action towards gun violence is not consistent with the very nature of Jesus Christ. Ecclesiastes 9:18 tells us that “wisdom is better than weapons of war.” There is no question that now is a time for thoughts and prayers. Prayer is powerful and nothing will be accomplished without it. Now is also the time, however, for action. Our nation is grieving and thoughts and prayers without action come across as empty, insincere and meaningless. We risk being the priest and Levite walking past when the world needs a Samaritan. Moreover, the lack of outcry and unified action from within our faith community damages our testimony to a confused and grieving world that is so desperate for the love, grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
As a Christian physician, I am convinced that now is a time for wisdom. Now is a time for healing. Now is a time for prayer. Now is a time to be a Samaritan.
Now is a time for action. And for me, that action begins here.
Matthew Blackwell, M.D.