AMA's Harris says stopping gun violence is in doctors' lane

Crime scene tape in a building with blurred forensic team in background
Research can answer questions on how to prevent gun violence, says American Medical Association President Patrice Harris. (Getty/Prathaan)

Physicians across the board have a role to play in stopping gun violence—one that most doctors believe is indeed "in their lane," said American Medical Association (AMA) President Patrice Harris.

“This is our lane. That was sort of a grassroots response,” said Harris during a Wall Street Journal Health Forum hosted virtually this week.

RELATED: Doctors to NRA on gun violence: This is our lane

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She was referring to the controversy that erupted in late 2018 when the National Rifle Association told doctors in a tweet to "stay in their lane" when addressing the politically charged issue of guns. Thousands of physicians responded on social media, creating the #ThisIsOurLane hashtag, as they shared the many reasons firearm injury and death are issues for doctors and healthcare.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were more than 39,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017 from firearm injuries, about 60% of them suicides, noted WSJ science writer Peter Loftus.

The AMA first declared gun violence a public health crisis in 2016, when the organization’s delegates met shortly after the mass shooting inside Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others, Harris noted

Since that time, the country’s largest physician organization has reaffirmed that policy and also called for emergency action to prevent gun-related injuries and deaths, she said.

Physicians—from emergency room doctors and trauma surgeons who are often called on to treat gunshot wounds to psychiatrists like herself who see the effects of that violence much later—all have a role to play, she said.

Harris acknowledged that the AMA has faced criticism from some of its gun-owning members who would prefer the organization stick to more traditional issues. For the AMA, it’s not an issue of controlling guns as much as a public health and safety issue, she said.

“When you live in a democracy, there are trade-offs,” she said about the differing opinions.

The AMA supports actions such as background checks and waiting periods before a person is allowed to purchase a gun, federal funding for research on gun violence, a ban on assault weapons and so-called red flag laws, enacted in some states that allow families and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals at imminent risk of using them to harm themselves or others.

RELATED: Can 'red flag' laws help prevent mass shootings? 21 cases suggest the answer is yes

Physicians need to talk to patients and families about gun safety, she said. And pediatricians and psychiatrists can ask about weapons in the home and whether they pose a risk to children and patients, she said.

Funding for research also can help answer questions.

“What can we do? What public health educational strategies work? What can primary care physicians incorporate into their practices? Are red flag laws working? What works?” Harris said.

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