The injured arrived at the Orlando Regional Medical Center in “truckloads.” They came with “multiple high-velocity” gunshot wounds to their arms, legs, and chests, from the assault rifle that Omar Mateen carried during his rampage at the Pulse nightclub. Nine died shortly after they arrived, while trauma surgeons, nurses, and other health workers, some who’d rushed to the hospital after being awoken in the night by urgent calls for help, worked to stabilize 35 others.
Medical professionals have an intimate view of gun violence in America and its growing severity. Trained for the traumas of civilian life—car crashes, falls, injuries from natural disasters—emergency-room staff are more and more frequently responding to mass shootings, of which there have been 998 since the Sandy Hook killings, and treating wounds more commonly seen in a war zone. Gun violence has become so common that the American College of Emergency Physicians assembled a task force earlier this year to study firearm injuries and create guidelines for treatment.
That such a task force is needed reflects the assumption that, absent some policy change, mass shootings will continue to happen. “It is crazy,” acknowledges Dr. Jay Kaplan, the president of ACEP. Kaplan praised the response of the medical team in Orlando, but said that other hospitals may be less prepared to deal with a sudden influx of multiple patients with injuries from bullets shot in rapid succession, as from a semi-automatic weapon. “We’re seeing penetrative trauma at a far greater scale than we’ve seen in the past. And our feeling is, as emergency physicians, in conjunction with our trauma colleagues, we need to know more,” Kaplan said. “It’s like responding to a battlefield in a civilian community.”
For years, the National Rifle Association and its allies on Congress have tried to exclude medical professionals from the gun-control debate, insisting that gun violence is strictly a matter of constitutional rights and criminal justice; or, if health is implicated, only in regards to mental illness. The mass shooting in Orlando demonstrated the absurdity of this position: Try telling the doctors and nurses and first responders that several dozen gruesome, unnecessary deaths and injuries don’t amount to a health problem.
On Monday, the country’s largest physicians group,the American Medical Association, declared gun violence “a public health crisis” and reiterated support for modest gun control measures including mandatory waiting periods and background checks for all handgun purchasers. Though other health groups have made similar declarations in the past, the AMA’s resolution is potentially more significant, as the organization is one of the top lobbying groups in the country. “Gun-related violence takes about 30,000 lives every year, and these are generally young healthy people whose lives are abruptly ended as a result of a public-health problem that we have not done sufficient research into,” outgoing AMA President Dr. Steven Stack said in an interview.