Common ground on preventing gun violence

After each high-profile tragedy involving gun violence, the debate begins anew over gun rights and restrictions. And with that debate, Americans show themselves to be as divided as ever.

Surgeons — those charged with treating the countless thousands each year who are injured by gunfire — are just as divided as the rest of us, it turns out. The American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma has surveyed its members on the subject since 2014.

“More than half of the survey respondents hold the view that firearms are beneficial and important for personal liberty and self-protection. About a third believe that firearms make us less safe, and about 15 percent don’t have a strong opinion either way,” said Dr. Ronald Stewart, a trauma surgeon at University Hospital’s Level I trauma center and chair of surgery at UT Health San Antonio.

Stewart, who until recently chaired the Committee on Trauma, is lead author of a new paper in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons that found some common ground among its members — raising the hope that such consensus might be possible for the rest of us.

The stakes are high. Firearm violence kills 175 Americans each day.

Most of the surgeons agreed on some broad safety measures including gun safety features, mandatory background checks, funding for research on gun violence, counseling on safe firearm ownership, and improving mental health screening and treatment, according to Dr. Stewart.

“We learned from these efforts that preventing injury from firearms was a high priority for all, that violence is the proximate cause of firearm injuries, and violence prevention strategies should be a critical focus. By being civil and collegial, we learned that we could stimulate creative problem solving,” Dr. Stewart added.

To summarize that common ground, the paper recommends policies that can reduce violent harm:

  1. Anyone who is a danger to themselves or others should not have a firearm.
  2. Responsible firearm ownership includes safe storage, education, training, and a commitment to keep firearms out of the hands of family members at high risk of self-harm, unlawful purchasers and violent offenders.
  3. Mental health access and treatment must be improved.
  4. Identify, understand and address the underlying causes of violence.

Dr. Stewart and his colleagues at University Hospital treated the victims of the Sutherland Springs mass shooting. One of his co-authors, Dr. Deborah Kuhls of Las Vegas, treated the victims of a mass shooting in that city in October. Other authors were Dr. Eileen M. Bulger of Seattle, who followed Dr. Stewart as chair of the Committee on Trauma; and Dr. Michael F. Rotondo of Rochester, N.Y., a former chair of the committee.