Thoughts and Prayers Aren’t Enough to Prevent Gun Violence—Here’s What Can

From enforcing current policies to allowing gun violence research, this ER doctor explains how we can curb mass shootings.

Medically reviewed in June 2022

I’m an ER doctor. I trained in an area of high violence and crime.

Day-to-day, the EMT radio transmissions can become background noise—68-year-old with stroke-like symptoms, 72-year-old male with chest pain. I’d hear it, mentally prepare and keep doing what I was doing.

But some transmissions stop you in your tracks: a 3-year-old drowning victim, a 5-year-old with gunshot wounds. Multiple casualties.

I don’t know what the ER doctors responding to the Parkland, Florida shooting thought when they heard that over two dozen teenagers with life-threatening gunshot wounds were coming. But I know it stopped them in their tracks. For a millisecond, they felt the urge to throw up. Or that they couldn’t breathe. Then, they donned their trauma gowns and stood alongside their trauma colleagues to prepare for the first victim.

You see, in the ER, we use many tools. We use medicine and scalpels. We use blood. Some days, a lot of blood. We cut open chests to examine damaged hearts, then sew them or insert a rubber tube into them. We’ll do anything to stabilize a patient long enough to get them to the operating room.

Of course, we use thoughts and we use prayers. But we don’t use only thoughts and prayers.

When I’m standing there, all of my cells trained on saving that life, I think, what if I could go back in time, like some Hollywood film, and prevent it? Go backwards on high-speed, out of the bloody trauma bay, backwards in the ambulance, back to the school and back to long before that day? I discussed this with leading injury prevention researcher Dr. Megan Ranney, a fellow emergency physician and Associate Professor at Brown University.

If I could, here’s what I’d do—and what could help us all going forward.

Start with responsible gun ownership
Most gun owners want to be responsible, right? You don’t want your gun to be the one that kills your own child, or others. But, you may not realize that you’re missing some key steps. You know to lock away firearms and lock the ammunition separately from those firearms. If you have children or teenagers, particularly if they are troubled, do NOT give them access. Do it for your own child, if no one else, as the rate of successful suicide is higher in teens who have access to firearms.

Enforce what policy exists
If someone has been involved in a domestic violence incident, eighteen states give police the authorization to remove their firearms. Yet this is rarely enforced. Other laws require that if particular individuals commit firearm-related crimes, they should have increased incarceration. Yet these are rarely enforced. In fact, 62 percent of violent gun crime arrests “involved individuals not legally permitted to have a gun at the time,” according to one study.

Allow for permits, background checks and restricted access to those who do not pass checks
When Missouri repealed its permit-to-purchase law, they saw a 25 percent increase in firearm homicides. If someone has a DUI, we try to help them reduce their alcohol intake, but we also suspend their driver’s license. If someone has a seizure, we treat their seizure, and we also take away their driver’s license. If someone is at-risk for gun violence, we should get them help, too—and we should also restrict their access to firearms or remove their personal firearms. While there are some laws that say firearms should be removed after an instance of gun violence, they only exist in a handful of states, and are often poorly enforced. 

Release the ban on the CDC to perform gun violence research
In 1996, Congress, stipulated that no CDC funds “may be used to advocate or promote gun control,” and cut the CDC budget by the exact amount of money earmarked for firearm injury research. The US has the highest rate of firearm homicide among high-income countries, 20 times higher than the average. Yet, we have willfully forbidden research on this for almost 22 years. Twenty-two years! Do you know how much potential knowledge was lost during that time? Let’s not wait 22 more years to find out.

Stop selling military-style assault weapons
I understand that the majority of people who own these are “law abiding citizens.”  But the truth is, when it comes to fully automatic guns, bump stocks, large capacity magazines and the like, there’s no function but mass killing. Hunters do not use these. Only killers do. Would this alone stop violence? No, of course not—sick people will find other ways to incite violence. All of the required TSA screening at US airports doesn’t guarantee a 100 percent reduction in terrorism attempts—but it drastically reduces them. So we do it, smartly. 

Don’t rely on “giving out more guns”
There’s no evidence that having more guns at schools would prevent gun violence. In fact, from evidence in hospitals, 20 percent of in-hospital shootings occurred with guns taken from security guards, according to Dr. Ranney.

“See something, say something” is important, but authorities must respond
We must encourage our children and citizens to remain vigilant—as much as I hate the idea of having to tell my young children to look out for this. But if they do report something, the responsibility lies with authorities to step up and monitor concerning individuals. It’s up to the authorities to protect the places that these people threaten. People did “say something” about the Parkland shooter. What happened?

We’ve gotten really good at injury prevention in the US. In fact, many of my emergency medicine colleagues lead the charge. We’ve reduced the death rate per mile driven in car crashes by 50 percent since the 1960s, according to Dr. Ranney. We’ve lowered the rate of death from fires and burns.

Why do we treat firearm violence differently? It is an injury prevention issue. Can you imagine: What if we had cut the deaths from gun violence by 50 percent over the past 60 years? How many broken hearts would have been prevented?

As Taylor Swift puts it: Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes. Nor do soundbites.

I try.

But my ER colleagues and I are damn tired of cleaning up. This time, let’s use our thoughts and our prayers to come up with real solutions.   


Photo: Candlelight vigil held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to remember the victims and survivors of the June 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre.

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