I am on call today. It’s been an average day for this trauma surgeon. 1250 miles away, it has been a day of extraordinary carnage at a trauma center in Orlando, and that was for the 53 people who survived the incident. Another 50 were left dead at the scene, all shot by a single person.
Yes, a single gunman.
This tragedy brought up a lot of issues that torment and divide us Americans today.
No doubt the perpetrator was a horrible, soul-less person. While whether he was driven by hatred for gays or misappropriation of Islam or an obsession with ISIL are issues worth considering, the fact of the matter is that, regardless of what drove him to do this, his impact would have been far less severe if he had not been in possession of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
In the hours since news of the horrific event emerged, several friends shared a clip of President Obama on the PBS Newshour responding to a query on gun control where he discusses how the reduction of automobile-related mortality was data driven and how we are hamstrung by the NRA and those who are backed by the NRA when it comes to finding data-driven solutions to the gun problem. The President assured his audience that no one is going to take away guns from “lawful, responsible gun owners [who use them] for sporting, hunting, protecting yourself.” In fact, it appears that Moms Demand Action (an organization that emerged after the Sandy Hook tragedy) used data to change its focus from a ban on assault weapons to a focus on background checks and common sense use of firearms. Evidently, the data showed that the 1994 assault weapon ban, which existed for a decade before it was allowed to expire in 2004, did not save that many lives, and the organization wants its efforts to save as many lives as possible.
But let me ask you this:
Did the lives of the 50 people killed and 52 wounded in the Pulse night club not matter?
Did the lives of the 26 people killed and the 2 wounded in Sandyhook Elementary School not matter?
Did the lives of the 12 people killed and 70 wounded inside the Century 16 Theater not matter?
In his PBS town hall, the President also commented on restrictions on background checks which some believe may have prevented this man in Orlando from becoming a gunman. Many people posted the list of the 45 senators who blocked legislation that would have kept someone on a terror watch list, a person of concern to the FBI, from getting any gun legally. However, when there is not a legal way, someone truly intent on killing will find an illegal way. An so this single person who killed so many instantly in such rapid succession would have found a way.
He might have built as bomb as we saw in Oklahoma City and at the Boston Marathon. But, fertilizer, diesel fuel, pressure cookers, and ball bearings have other purposes.
He might have flown a plane into the building as was done in a calculated, multi-person, multi-year scheme set up by a worldwide terror group on 9/11/2001. But planes are intended for transport.
I could go on and on. And I often hear these myriad ways that others can kill cited when people state “Guns don’t kill; People kill.” Heck, I see them daily in my job: beer bottles, baseball bats, ice picks, kitchen knives, pipes, motorized vehicles…These all can be used to commit murder but are nowhere near as efficient as a semi-automatic rifle.
And for these reasons, yes it is worth discussing what motivated this man to commit mass murder. It’s worth trying to understand how he became this venomous monster. It’s worth examining our processes of surveillance by law enforcement of those whom we suspect might become venomous monsters. But come on, do we really need to amass any quantity of data on semi-automatic rifles? A single magazine can hold 20 to 100 rounds of military grade bullets and fire up to 60 times a minute. Do we need really need study if this kind of weapon is necessary for decent law-abiding folks to shoot tin cans in their back yards, or take down deer for sport, or protect themselves from home intruders?
Don’t get me wrong. I am both a surgeon and a health services researcher. I thrive on studying vexing issues through data collection and robust statistical analysis. I believe evidence-based approaches. Like many trauma surgeons and injury prevention researchers, I too want to know if biometric locks would reduce accidental deaths due to handguns. I wonder what psychometric tools might be used to optimize background checks if we ever could effectively implement them. I just don’t think we need data on this particular kind of weapon.
In case you missed it before, the kind of weapon that was used to kill 50 people nearly instantly and injure 52 more in Orlando overnight, was also used to killed 12 and wound 70 in Aurora, CO and was used to kill 20 children and 6 adults while injuring 2 more in Newtown, CT.
I was recently attended a talk by Dr. Lenworth Jacobs, a renowned surgeon at Hartford Hospital. He spoke of what steps they took on the day of the Sandy Hook massacre to ready their trauma center. Alas, no one was transported there because the vast majority were dead at the scene. Dr. Jacobs had the difficult task of reviewing every single autopsy while preparing a consensus statement on how to handle active shooter events. The air went cold as he described to a room full of surgeons what the military grade ammunition did to those poor kids’ bodies. They never had a chance.
The Hartford Consensus statements that would emerge from this review of Sandy Hook and other mass shooting focused on how to prepare civilians, first responders, and trauma centers to save as many lives as possible in the face of such horrific events. Nothing was said about the weapons themselves. When asked about this, the Dr. Jacobs responded that it’s too politically charged; and since active shooter events will presumably continue to happen, our role [as surgeons] was to identify a problem that is addressable (people dying of possibly preventable hemorrhage) and address it (education on hemorrhage control within the context of active shooter events). The logical person in me who understands that the right to bear arms in part of the fabric of US society admired the pragmatism and ingenuity regarding active shooter events described in Dr. Jacob’s talk.
Less than 3 weeks later there was the deadliest ever active shooter event in Orlando. To be sure, some of the 53 who lived must have benefited from the data reviewed for the Hartford statements. But please don’t tell me that you need data or that data is the reason why you won’t stand up and say “no, not ever” to a type of gun that can rip holes in the aorta, pierce through the brain, pummel through the heart, and break strong bones into bits and pieces in an instant up to 60 fucking shots a minute. There is no need for civilians to ever have this kind of a weapon. Not ever.
And while it’s true that people will continue to die because those intent on killing will do so with criminally acquired firearms or by weaponizing everyday objects, because law-abiding gun owners will continue to be careless with their hunting rifles and handguns, and because those suffering from depression will commit suicide by firearm, we simply cannot stand behind this veil of data in not calling for a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles.
The overall number of people killed by the AR-15 and similar military grade firearms might pale in comparison to the aggregate numbers of lives lost through other forms of gun violence but lets not devalue the lives of those killed and injured with these heinously destructive weapons by pretending we need data to ban them.
We don’t need data. We need to stand up and do the right thing. We need to put an end to the ‘single shooter able to kill multiple victims in just a few minutes’ phenomenon made possible by the deadly combination of soul-less perpetrators and powerful semi-automatic assault rifles.
Since this post was first shared a number of people have posted petitions regarding a ban on assault rifles. I don’t know what if any impact any of these will have but I am sharing them below.