Reverberations of the recent Detroit school shooting that led to school closures following threats of more gun violence in Michigan at Oxford High School continue to echo through my mind. As people across the United States continue to feel the pain of gun violence and remain divided on gun rights, I can’t help but wonder: When did the right to bear arms become the right to kill?
What about the rights of 16-year-old Tate Myre, as he preserved his last moments of life trying to save others without a thought for his own safety? Or for Hana St. Juliana, the youngest victim at 14 years old, now memorialized too soon? Myre, St. Juliana, 17-year-old Justin Shilling, a beloved football player for the school, and 17-year-old Madisyn Baldwin, who had already received college acceptance letters, are haunting hearts across America as their faces appear in the news.
These tragedies have occurred as the reverberations of the jury acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse is freshly haunting America, along with the prior semi-automatic shootings in the streets and schools–the new hunting grounds of America. I learned about the second amendment in school at a time when active shooter drills did not exist. Now we treat active shooters as we do natural disasters. Why is this the norm in the U.S.?
The purpose of the second amendment, which was to empower and protect the state from the ambitions of a federal militia, has been rewritten it seems. What was meant to serve as protection against bullies has now become a means to bully the most vulnerable. And these victims cannot seek justice in our courts posthumously.
Kyle Rittenhouse was able to share his story on the stand, and we witnessed the personal burden he now bears of taking the lives of two men and injuring one, thus permanently affecting three families and countless others. But it’s hard to reconcile his use of an AR-15 rifle among a slew of unarmed peaceful protesters as self-defense. It is just as difficult to understand how 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley could have access to a semi-automatic handgun that had been purchased legally by his father just days prior when there were warning signs of mental health needs in his journal and social media accounts.
Emergency physicians nationwide are the primary healthcare providers for victims of gun violence. Sure, I may have only one perspective based on my experience caring for these patients, many of whom died or became paralyzed and crippled against my best intentions. But, which viewpoint is worth listening to in this debate? Would you take the voice of Carolyn Meadows, president of the National Rifle Association, an organization spending about $250 million a year, with at least $3 million recorded as lobbying expenditures to lawmakers to influence gun policy, and more unrecorded funds spent on political action committees and congressional candidates, nearly all Republican. Or would you take the voice of Nicole Hockley, the mother of Dylan, a first-grader who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, who has dedicated her life to the Sandy Hook Promise?
The children who survive gun violence will carry so many scars unseen, traumatized by the same gut-wrenching fear that only veterans of war and few others have experienced. When did we start giving more importance to money than lives, especially the lives of our children?
My colleagues and I fight against this loss of life because we do not have stricter gun control, but we, too, carry scars home with us every day, as do many of our patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Among them is a young man who is now a paraplegic. He was an innocent bystander shot by a stray bullet. His 70-year-old mother had to leave my emergency department against medical advice even though she was suffering a serious heart condition to care for him. Her husband had passed away. She couldn’t call on her daughters, one had committed suicide shortly after the shooting and the other is the sole breadwinner for their family of four who works the night shift at a grocery store. The reverberations are there, yet many don’t witness them. If there is any viewpoint more relevant to speak on the impact that gun violence has on our communities, it is the perspective of the emergency physician.
Without stricter gun control, firearm-related deaths have been increasing annually since 2015, with about 10% of these deaths occurring in children and teens and 60% of these considered deaths from suicide. Comparing the U.S. with other countries in the world shows that these deaths are completely excessive and preventable. We are the only country in the world with more firearms than citizens. Our gun homicide rate was 73% in 2019, compared to the next highest nation, Canada, with a rate of 39%.
Reviewing the Rittenhouse trial, changes in legislation for minors to carry firearms backed by a Republican legislator in Wisconsin, allowed Rittenhouse to walk free and ultimately for him to be rewarded an AR-15 by a gun rights organization for taking lives.
Ethan Crumbley, the alleged shooter at Oxford High School had touted his “right to bear arms.” But there are no rights for the lives lost too soon, nor for their family members who will forever carry grief and despair.
As the nation prays for the injured victims, two of the seven being 14 years old and in critical condition. What are the reverberations resulting from all of these lives needlessly lost? What if the millions of dollars so easily given to the government for less strict gun control laws could be given to families who have lost family members due to gun violence, or to better mental health care, which is so desperately needed in our country?
I fear that America has become a country of caveats rather than a country of greatness, and the Rittenhouse court case may become one of many that will bring forth a trajectory of awarding vigilantism. And I fear that the movie “The Purge” will become my daily reality as my shoes continue to collect the dregs of American blood of all ages, so that profit continues to reign supreme.
About the Author:
Vinoo Dissanayake, MD MPH FACEP, is currently an emergency medicine educator and physician at Rush University Medical Center. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project and Rush University. She attended the University of Southern California for medical school and then trained at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, IL for her emergency medicine residency. She completed a double fellowship in Global Emergency Medicine and Medical Toxicology, during which she obtained her MPH in Environmental and Occupational Health.