Healthcare leaders urge Congress to make Texas school shooting the country's last: 'We need real change'

Healthcare organizations and their leaders are renewing calls on Congress to pass new gun control legislation and support gun violence intervention programs in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.

The messages of condolences and grief for the families also carry an edge of frustration, often remarking on Congress’ inaction following other high-profile tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012, the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 and this month’s supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York.

“Across the country, nurses, workers, and parents all feel the pain of loss and the despair of knowing too little has changed since the last tragic mass shooting,” New York State Nurses Association President Nancy Hagans said in a Wednesday statement. “We need our political leaders to offer more than empty rhetoric—we need real change. Gun violence is a public health emergency, and we need to use every tool possible to remedy it.”

On Tuesday, an 18-year-old man used a semiautomatic rifle in an attack at Uvalde, Texas’ Robb Elementary School that wounded 17 people and killed at least 19 children and two teachers, according to AP reports as of Wednesday afternoon.

The school shooting came just 10 days after a shooter traveled to a Buffalo supermarket and killed 10 Black people and injured three other people with a semiautomatic rifle.

“These assaults once again vividly illustrate the all-too-familiar consequences of how gun violence continues to plague the nation,” Association of American Medical Colleges President and CEO David Skorton, M.D., said in a Wednesday statement. “They are also a reminder of how homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries with firearms take an overwhelming daily toll on our communities. These preventable tragedies will continue to be inevitable as long as lawmakers continue to choose inaction over reasonable protections to keep our children and our communities safe.”

'Be frustrated, but stay resilient'

Alongside reigniting the national debate over gun control, the attacks struck a chord within the healthcare system that treats the victims of firearm injuries and deaths.

Firearm-related violence was declared a public health crisis by the American Medical Association (AMA) in 2016 shortly after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, a viewpoint shared by many across the healthcare system.

“Because I think gun violence is a public health issue, every healthcare organization and every healthcare leader should be standing tall right now to advocate for action from Congress to do something,” Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, told Fierce Healthcare.

“We can’t give up the battle … You’ve got to be frustrated, but stay resilient.”

In a new statement, AMA President Gerald Harmon, M.D., said firearm incidents before and after that declaration could have been prevented with action from lawmakers and other leaders on “common-sense safety measures like background checks.” He also pointed to 16 separate policy recommendations his organization has developed over the years to address firearm trauma, injury and death.

“While the ideal time to act and find common-sense solutions and common ground might have been years ago, the best we can do now is act today,” he said. “The AMA will continue to support policies and advocate for initiatives aimed at encouraging firearm safety and preventing firearm-related injuries and deaths.”

An estimated 30,000 inpatient stays and 50,000 emergency department visits are tied to firearm injuries each year, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last year.

More than 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S. during 2020, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. According to the Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization, there have been 17,213 all-cause gun violence deaths and 213 mass shootings across the country as of May 25.

Background checks and assault weapon bans were common demands from the health organizations, with National Nurses United noting its public stance against the latter since 2019.

Federation of American Hospitals President and CEO Chip Kahn also pointed to additional federal funding for hospital violence intervention programs—a call 18 hospital and health system executives alongside over 1,300 other healthcare personnel took up last summer in an open letter addressed to Senate and House leaders from both parties.

“This is not what the U.S. is all about, we should not be reading about these mass shootings pretty regularly,” Dowling, a co-signer on last summer’s letter, said Wednesday. “What I’m afraid of is they’ll give all sorts of lip service to this, come up with excuses, say ‘How terrible for the families’ and then move on, not do anything fundamental to change the availability of guns.

“I’ve got to be honest, I don’t see the courage that exists among our key leaders to make it happen,” he continued. “I mean, the White House has talked about it, Chris Murphy from Connecticut has been very vocal on this—and he’s a wonderful advocate to do something sane and reasonable here—but we need the leadership in the Senate and the House to come together.”

While most prepared statements from healthcare organizations avoided casting blame on a particular party, National Nurses United shined a spotlight on Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republicans in Congress who “have routinely blocked even moderate federal gun control legislation.

“Nurses advocate for our patients’ health and for public health,” said Ross. “We will be joining efforts to win the gun control reforms we need to make our society safe. This means confronting the extremist agenda of far-right politicians and their gun lobby backers, and it means holding them accountable for disregarding the health and safety of our communities.”

Dowling, meanwhile, lamented that lawmakers “have lost the concept of compromise” and stressed that party and ideology walls need to be lowered to make headway.

“We’ve got to figure out how to save lives here,” he said. “Let’s compromise on this and do something; a small step, even if it’s not as big as we would like. Take a small step that would indicate there’s a willingness to do something.”

Healthcare CEOs have been 'silent too long'

Dowling wasn’t optimistic about lawmakers’ willingness to pass new gun control legislation—if anything, the increase in shootings and weapon sales over the course of the pandemic suggests the issue is moving in the wrong direction, he said.

Still, he noted that the last several years have seen an increase in the healthcare industry’s willingness to confront gun violence head on.

“More healthcare leaders today are talking about it. In fact, I had a meeting this morning—and it wasn’t specifically on [gun violence]—but I had all the CEOs on the phone and for the first time those CEOs started to raise the question about the fact that they now have to get involved,” Dowling said.

“[The CEOs] said ‘We’ve got to do something now, this has just gone too far. We’ve been silent too long.’ Those are small, positive steps.”

There are also several ways healthcare leaders can help address gun violence across their organizations and the industry, Dowling continued. To limit threats across their own facilities, he advised leaders to continually educate their staff about precautions to take during a shooting and invest in other security infrastructure.

“I quite frankly never thought I would be putting metal detectors at the front of all our hospitals but unfortunately given the situation that we’re in,” he said. “We’ve had shootings, we’ve had staff threatened in our facilities. We’ve had staff killed near our facilities in the last month alone, so we’ve had to protect the public and put in as many protective devices as we can so someone cannot come into our hospitals armed.”

More broadly, the executive pointed to a research project at Northwell asking emergency department patients about their experiences with guns alongside other intake questions regarding their health condition.

“The other thing we’re working on very deliberately is trying to get as many healthcare organizations as possible to engage in public advocacy on this and to be in contact with their legislators,” he said, referencing a national gun violence coalition for health systems and hospitals launched by Northwell.

“More and more organizations are getting involved, but this requires a universal advocacy by the public—this is a public health issue and we’ve got to get our leadership to take some responsibility.”