Column: Act now to end gun violence

Betty S. Chu

In the aftermath of most disasters, people often quote Fred Rogers — Mr. Rogers, to many of us—who once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’

Today, if you are looking at the helpers in the aftermath of so many terrible mass shootings, you will find them looking right back at you. I write on behalf of Michigan physicians everywhere when I ask when and how we can — as a society — begin working together to solve our problems related to gun violence in our state and nation.

It’s not just the headline-making shooting events that trouble us. Every day, Americans are harmed by dangerous firearms, with the Centers for Disease Control reporting more than 33,000 people losing their lives each year.

Worse still, Michigan ranks among the top 10 states for gun violence, with a firearm death rate of 12.3 percent.

We see these incidents every day, and as physicians we work hard to treat and heal the individuals and families harmed.

But enough is enough. Whether it’s a mass shooting, a hold-up, a suicide, or an innocent child snooping around their parent’s nightstand, firearm tragedies are taking a lethal toll on our state and nation. We must find solutions to put a stop to this senseless public health risk before more lives are lost.

During the past several years, the Michigan State Medical Society has adopted a series of policy positions aimed at curbing gun violence. We also have worked in our own individual areas of practice to identify mental health issues and other concerns that could lead to tragedy.

But ending this massive problem takes more than that. To prevent more shooting deaths, we’ll need to deploy a complete array of cultural, social, medical, legal, and educational tools and assets. For example, it is often said mental health issues play a tremendous role in an individual’s decision to carry out a shooting. In many cases, this is true — but in a greater number of cases, it is not. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association reports that just 1 percent of all yearly gun-related homicides are committed by people experiencing serious mental illness.

So what, specifically, are the factors that culminate in the pull of a trigger? We believe a great deal more study is necessary to identify the root causes of — and solutions to ending — gun violence. Our leaders must act, if not to restrict access to firearms, then certainly to fund the kind of in-depth research required to help improve the well-being of many would-be shooters.

But that is likely not all that is needed. Similarly, improved regulation over America’s firearms could protect the rights of all while still ensuring the safety of a great many who might otherwise suffer harm in the years to come.

Right now, it’s clear the current approach isn’t working correctly. Too many guns are getting into the hands of the wrong people, and that has to stop.

There are many avenues we could choose to pursue as a nation to help end the shootings — and reduce the massive financial toll gun violence takes on our health care system. It’s been estimated that gun violence costs Americans at least $229 billion each year, including $8.6 billion in direct costs for emergency room and medical care.

The reasons for intervention are simple and numerous. It is way past time to move forward in fixing the elements that lead to gun violence. The dialogue won’t be easy, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Betty S. Chu is president-elect of the Michigan State Medical Society.