ROCHESTER, Minn. — Among the organizations calling for more than thoughts and prayers in the aftermath of last week’s mass shootings are an unlikely group of gun control activists — many of the nations’ leading medical societies, including the Minnesota Medical Association.
“It has become a public health crisis because of the number of people who are losing their lives directly, and the huge costs to the family members of people who lose their lives in gun violence,” says Dr. Douglas Wood, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist and president of the Minnesota Medical Association.
The gun violence that spills into the nation’s emergency rooms each night produces 115,000 combined deaths and injuries requiring treatment annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. For doctors, this is both a health and professional burden.
“The greatest impact on doctors is that experienced by the first responders, the emergency room physicians who have to deal with these injuries and death,” says Wood. “It’s very traumatic of course to have to look at a body that’s terribly broken and injured by the lethal effect of a firearm. The way ammunition is made now, that damage that’s done to tissues, bone and muscle is quite devastating, and is so difficult to repair.”
Mass shootings involving military-style assault weapons made up half of all firearm mass murders, according to a 2018 study. The AR-15 style of firearms can place three times the impact forces on surrounding tissues, creating a “swath of tissue damage that extends several inches from its path” as a trauma radiologist writing of the phenomena in 2018 explained. In the same piece, the clinician described physicians increasingly tasked with opening high-powered rifle wounds ordinarily treatable, were they caused by ordinary handguns, only to find “nothing left to repair.”
“The Minnesota Medical Association supports prohibiting civilians from possessing semi-automatic, military-style assault weapons,” says Wood, “as well as closing the loophole for private sellers, allowing the Minnesota Department of Health to collect data for public health and epidemiologic investigation, and creating red flag law in Minnesota,” and among other actions.
In opposing such weapons, the MMA joins growing list of medical associations which have taken formal positions in recent years calling the rise in gun violence a public health crisis. These include the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians the American Academy of Pediatrics and others. “We believe that private ownership of military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines represents a grave danger to the public,” stated seven physician professional societies in a joint statement in The Annals of Internal Medicine 2015.
“It’s about guns,” says Dr. Tom Kottke, cardiologist and epidemiologist at HealthPartners and past president of the Twin Cities Medical Society. What are the other (possible causes)? The internet? Everybody has the internet. Video games? Everybody has video games. Mental illness? Everybody has mental illness. The only thing different between the US and western Europe, the US and Japan, the US and Australia is the availability of guns. It’s only us and Brazil that are this violent.”
Objective data is accumulating in support of Kottke’s position. The US has higher rates of mass shootings than far more dangerous countries, according to a 2018 analysis of public mass shootings in 171 countries between 1966 and 2012. With five percent of the world’s population, the US has 30 percent of the world’s mass shootings, a phenomena the research had linked conclusively to high gun ownership rates within the US.
"The vast majority of physicians (in Minnesota) support this," says Wood. Some doctors say the MMA should be advocating for doctors and leave the social policies out of it, but this is public health policy."
All are not persuaded. After the Annals of Internal Medicine expanded last fall on its original position paper, the National Rifle Association lashed back. “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane,” the pro-gun lobbying group stated on Twitter. A reply hashtag #ThisIsOurLane soon emerged in a deluge of over 21,000 responses, most in support of medical advocacy for tighter gun laws, many including photos from doctors of emergency rooms in disarray in the aftermath of treating gunshot wounds.
“This is our lane,” says Kottke. “The mental health and physical health problems for the people who come into our emergency departments with gunshot wounds, that’s a medical problem...And for people who are now afraid to go out to nightclubs, who are afraid to go to concerts, who are afraid to go shopping, who can’t go about their daily business without fear. This is psychological trauma and this is our lane.”