Healthcare industry must drive gun violence prevention

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The late philosopher, poet and novelist George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When it comes to gun violence and mass shootings such as those that occurred in recent days in Boulder and Atlanta, the bloodshed of the past seems to fade from the public consciousness within days or weeks after they occur, reducing pressure on state and federal lawmakers to enact common-sense gun laws.

Much like the fatigue we are now seeing in people’s willingness to comply with coronavirus prevention restrictions, it seems society—and more importantly our elected officials—has become increasingly numb to the loss of life from not only mass shootings but the tens of thousands of lives lost every year from gun-related murders, suicides and accidental shootings. Although the coronavirus kept most Americans relatively isolated last year, 2020 still saw a record 611 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot and/or killed in a single event), with gun-related deaths reaching a new high of 43,530, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shooting incidents nationally.

COVID-19 has taught us many lessons in medicine, relationships and, most importantly, humanity. We’ve been forced to learn on the fly, adapt when necessary and better respond when faced with daunting health challenges in the future.

Yet, we continually fail to read the warning signs or act based on large-scale tragedies that have become far too common over the past two decades. What we’ve witnessed time and again is a minimalistic approach to finding viable solutions. As we are seeing now in Boulder and Atlanta, we hear the public outcry when it personally impacts their communities. But we don’t hear enough from leaders in Congress who can make a difference.

With gun violence continuing to surge through the country amid the pandemic, it should be apparent to even those arguing for gun rights and freedoms that we have a very serious problem. This crisis is not an ocean away or even at our door, it is inside our house, tearing at our very foundation and has been for quite some time. Our response? Splintered at best. Unresponsive at worst.

Unlike what we have done when faced with other life and death issues, we have failed to take appropriate steps to mitigate this one. Some will say that the gun issue is far too political to make any real inroads that make a difference. And at times, it does feel that way. When even incremental steps like closing loopholes in background checks are met with an assault from special interest groups charging that the real goal is to erase the Second Amendment (when nothing could be further from the truth), it leaves those who want thoughtful, reasoned change to experience the ultimate sense of futility.

Still, we can and must do better than merely express righteous outrage when what used to be the unthinkable occurs–as it does more and more frequently. The Boulder gunman’s rampage involving the use of an assault rifle-type weapon is merely another example of bloodshed that could have been prevented. This is our sad reality.

Tragedy can always occur despite our best preparations. That’s when we look to learn from our mistakes. But before we change our protocols, first we must ask ourselves if we did our best to respond? Did we marshal our resources the way we do annually for the flu or during the COVID pandemic? Did we use an ounce of prevention? Sadly, when it comes to gun violence, we know the answer and we should be ashamed as a society.

As any experienced crisis manager will tell you, every traumatic incident is best managed by what you do before the event occurs. The most effective response is addressed in the planning and the approach. Whether it’s something like a virus, an unexpected financial setback or something far more sinister, preparation is key.

It is why we believe healthcare leaders must take a lead role in confronting the public health crisis of gun violence as we have with epidemics and pandemics. Who better to prepare for life and death issues plaguing our citizens than those who face those issues round the clock? Our EMS personnel transport the wounded, hospital emergency departments receive the victims, our nurses and physicians personally deal with the carnage. We work with government, police, first-responders, and public and private employers to build coalitions to address other public health crises. Why would gun violence be any different?

Those who fear the divisive politics of this issue may be hesitant to weigh in. That is not healthcare’s pedigree. When you face the likes of COVID-19, cancer, ALS, Alzheimer’s, cardiac disease and other killers as part of your every day, you do not scare easily. When you’ve already stood against polio, made advances against stroke and other neurological diseases, conquered the death sentence of AIDS, made inroads against cancer—and other afflictions that rob us of our humanity—you understand the importance of developing a plan, sticking to it and working it until you see results.

It’s called determination, and it’s what we promise to bring to the public health crisis of gun violence.

More than a year ago, Northwell Health took the lead in reaching out to other health leaders, physicians, philanthropists, scientists, law enforcement and concerned citizens to advocate for gun violence prevention strategies and changes in our gun laws that would help prevent future carnage. We are committed to nonpartisan research to advance sound policy that ensures our constitutional freedoms, yet simultaneously seeks to preserve life against senseless attacks by studying the benefits and costs of a wide variety of initiatives.

Our position is simple. We are pro-Second Amendment and anti-senseless killing. It is a position that not only represents the vast majority of Americans, it represents every single, right-thinking American because it ensures our freedoms and seeks to minimize the slaughter of innocent victims.

As caregivers on the front lines of public health who are conquering the worst pandemic of our generation, we are obligated to ask the question of whether we have done enough to help prevent the latest tragedies in Boulder and Atlanta. Unfortunately, our collective answer is “no.”

The onus is on us, a multitrillion-dollar industry, to use our political capital and mobilize our employees to advocate for change.

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