Doctors Take on Gun Violence With Push for Assault-Weapons Ban

Gun Rights

(Bloomberg) — For the last five months, Chicago-based pediatrician Emily Lieberman has been splitting her time between treating patients and parenting two young daughters — along with trying to get assault weapons banned in the US.It’s a lofty goal in a country that has more guns than it does people, but she’s not alone in the fight. Earlier this month, Lieberman traveled to Washington with 50 other doctors in a last-ditch attempt to get a vote on the assault weapons ban before the current legislative session ends. Over the course of two days, the group met with dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.  The doctors’ message is a simple one: Gun violence is a public-health crisis. “We want to make sure our position is clear: Failing to pass an assault weapons ban means more patients on our operating tables and explaining to families that their loved one is never coming home,” the doctors wrote in a letter to US senators.Doctors were once reluctant to get involved in the politically charged gun debate, but it’s taken on new urgency as the US spirals ever deeper into the crisis. Gun violence has become the country’s leading cause of death for kids and teens younger than 19 cnd, according to a congressional report, costs hospitals more than $1 billion annually. There have been at least 628 mass shootings so far this year and firearms have led to more than 45,000 deaths, according to the Gun Violence Archive.Lieberman hadn’t really been a vocal advocate for gun control until this summer.  She and her husband, Elliot – also a doctor – were at a Fourth of July parade in their hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, when a gunman fired on the crowd, killing seven people and wounding more than four dozen. 

“We’re not only survivors of a mass shooting, but we’re dealing with the ripple effect afterward with patients,” Emily Lieberman said in an interview at her home in November. She soon connected with March Fourth, a nonprofit group started by a local mom in the wake of the Highland Park shooting, and took her first trip to Washington to advocate for the ban. She realized on that trip that her voice had the power to cut through some of the rhetoric that clouds the conversation on gun control in America. 

Roy Guerrero, a pediatrician from Uvalde, Texas, whose young patients were among those killed during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in May, has become another regular presence in Washington.  

“I’m a gun owner and I believe in the Second Amendment, but I’m also a doctor,” Guerrero said during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 15. “So, yes, I love an effective tool — but when a body comes into the hospital riddled with bullets, no tool is going to help.”Doctors have often been hesitant to speak out about gun measures because of concerns of retaliation from hospitals, universities or even state governments. More than a decade ago, then-Florida Governor Rick Scott attempted to make it illegal for physicians to “ask questions concerning the ownership of a firearm,” a policy that has since been overturned.In 2018, one of the doctors who treated victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, faced retaliation for speaking out about the carnage she saw, according to Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed that day. That same year, in response to research published in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the National Rifle Association tweeted “someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” The American Medical Association has for years considered gun violence a public-health crisis, but doctors said it wasn’t until more recently that the group has shown support for specific policies and reforms, including the bipartisan Safer Communities Act that President Joe Biden signed into law this summer. 

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There are signs the tide may also be shifting on Capitol Hill. After a spate of mass shootings last summer, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it harder to buy and sell the type of assault weapons used to carry out some of the country’s deadliest attacks – the first time such a bill has gotten the full House vote since 1994.Biden renewed his plea for Congress to act this week, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.“I am determined to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines like those used at Sandy Hook and countless other mass shootings in America,” he said in a Dec. 14 statement. There has been little movement on the assault-weapons measure and no talk of a vote before the end of the session, with Congress focused on wrapping up defense and omnibus appropriations bills before the Christmas holiday. There’s scant chance the legislation would get any traction in next year’s GOP-controlled House and it also faces tough odds in the Senate, where it likely wouldn’t be able to win over the 10 Republicans needed to overcome a filibuster. Some members of the GOP have pushed the unfounded claim that mental illness bears more blame for mass shootings than unfettered access to guns.The measure wouldn’t be a panacea for gun violence, which represents a far greater problem than highly publicized mass shootings. But it would create stricter controls for weapons that can inflict enormous amounts of damage, making it illegal to import, sell, manufacture, transfer or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon or large-capacity ammunition feeding device. It permits continued possession or transfer of a grandfathered semiautomatic weapon, on the condition that it be securely stored and a background check conducted by a licensed gun dealer before any sale or transfer. Most law-enforcement activities are exempt. 

In 1994, Congress for the first time passed a similar ban on assault weapons in an effort to stem rising rates of homicide and violence, but it expired in 2004. Evidence that the ban actually helped lower firearm deaths has been subject to scrutiny, even among gun control advocacy groups. That may be because until recently there were few studies on gun violence due to NRA lobbying efforts that for decades prevented US health agencies and deterred researchers from studying it. Some groups have instead chosen to focus on other gun control measures like universal background checks and safe storage requirements.

For many doctors, though, the evidence couldn’t be more clear. Assault weapons are considered the firearms of choice in mass shootings because of their ability to inflict the greatest amount of damage. Since 2009, all five of the deadliest mass shootings— in Las Vegas; Orlando, Florida; Newtown; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and El Paso, Texas— were carried out using assault weapons or high-capacity magazines. The weapons can leave as many as six times as many people shot per incident, and are responsible for about 76% of injuries and 25% of all gun deaths, according to research from Everytown for Gun Safety.  

“This weapon allows the transformation of almost incalculable trauma to a community,” Elliot Lieberman said.

(Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.)

–With assistance from Laura Litvan and John Lauerman.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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