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Major U.S. medical groups urge policymakers to take action on reducing gun violence

The organizations urge public officials to implement a number of steps to reduce gun violence, including background checks for all firearm purchases and the elimination of “physician gag laws.”

El Paso mourner
A Horizon High School student mourns for her classmate, Jose Rodriguez, as people gather to pay their respects after the mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso.
REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

Seven leading American medical and public health organizations have joined the nationwide call for politicians to #DoSomething to prevent gun-related injuries and deaths.

In an article published online Wednesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the organizations urge policymakers to implement a number of steps to reduce gun violence, including background checks for all firearm purchases and the elimination of “physician gag laws,” which prohibit physicians from counseling their patients about the health risks associated with having a gun in the home.

The organizations that issued the call to action are the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Surgeons, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Public Health Association. Together, they represent 731,000 U.S. physicians and 25,000 public health professionals.

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In Wednesday’s article, the organizations point out that the country’s gun-violence statistics — almost 40,000 people are killed by gunshot wounds each year in the United States and tens of thousands more are injured — are more than abstract numbers to physicians.

“Across the United States, physicians have daily, firsthand experience with the devastating consequences of firearm-related injury, disability, and death,” the authors of the article write. “We witness the impact of these events not only on our patients, but also on their families and communities.”

“As physicians, we have a special responsibility and obligation to our patients to speak out on prevention of firearm-related injuries and deaths, just as we have spoken out on other critical public health issues,” they add. “As a country, we must all work together to develop practical solutions to prevent injuries and save lives.”

The article also notes how the #ThisIsOurLane hashtag went viral last fall after the National Rifle Association (NRA) posted on Twitter that physicians should “stay in their lane” on the issue of gun control. The NRA tweet was in direct response to a policy paper released by the American College of Physicians on reducing firearm-related injury and death.

“Within hours, thousands of physicians responded, many using the hashtags #ThisIsOurLane and #ThisIsMyLane, and shared the many reasons why firearm injury and death is most certainly in our lane,” the article’s authors write.

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What needs to be done

Here are the eight policy recommendations that the organizations believe are needed to reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths:

  • Background Checks for Firearm Purchases

Comprehensive criminal background checks for all firearm purchases, including sales by gun dealers, sales at gun shows, private sales, and transfers between individuals with limited exceptions should be required.

  • Need for Research on Firearm Injury and Death

Research to help us better understand the causes and consequences of firearm-related injury and death and to identify, test, and implement strategies to reduce these events is important.

  • Intimate Partner Violence

Offenders who have been adjudicated guilty of a crime of violence against a family member or intimate partner, including dating partners, cohabitants, stalkers, and those who victimize a family member other than a partner or child, should be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and be prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms.

  • Safe Storage of Firearms

Safe storage is essential to reducing the risk for unintentional or intentional injuries or deaths from firearms, particularly in homes with children, adolescents, people with dementia, people with substance use disorders, and the small subset of people with serious mental illnesses that are associated with greater risk of harming themselves and/or others. … Our organizations support child access prevention laws that hold accountable firearm owners who negligently store firearms under circumstances where minors could or do gain access to them.

  • Mental Health

The organizations represented in this article support improved access to mental health care and caution against broadly including all individuals with a mental health or substance use disorder in a category of individuals prohibited from purchasing firearms.

  • Extreme Risk Protection Orders

Extreme risk protection order (ERPO) laws, which allow families and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals at imminent risk for using them to harm themselves or others, should be enacted in a manner consistent with due process.

  • Physician Counseling of Patients and “Gag Laws”

Physicians can and must be able to advise their patients on issues that affect their health, including counseling at-risk patients about mitigating the risks associated with firearms in the home and firearm safety. …  Physicians must be allowed to speak freely to their patients without fear of liability or penalty. They must also be able to document these conversations in the medical record just as they are able and often required to do with other discussions of behaviors that can affect health.

  • Firearms With Features Designed to Increase Their Rapid and Extended Killing Capacity

A common-sense approach to reducing casualties in mass shooting situations must effectively address high-capacity magazines and firearms with features designed to increase their rapid and extended killing capacity.

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“Physicians are on the front lines of caring for patients affected by intentional or unintentional firearm-related injury,” the call to action concludes. “… As with other public health crises, firearm-related injury and death are preventable. The medical profession has an obligation to advocate for changes to reduce the burden of firearm-related injuries and death on our patients, their families, our communities, our colleagues, and our society.”

FMI: You can read the entire call to action on the website for the Annals for Internal Medicine.