Following the mass shootings in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May, MedPage Today spoke with physicians who have responded to mass casualty events. As part of our review of the year’s top stories, we follow up on what has happened in the U.S. since the shootings.
The mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde sparked national outrage, spurring conversations about gun control in the U.S., much like those that occurred after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
After the May shootings, physicians talked about the catastrophic damage that assault weapons inflict on victims due to the power and speed with which they eject bullets, noting that emergency medicine physicians often don’t have the opportunity to try and save victims of mass shootings in which assault weapons are used because of this intense damage.
They also said that the high prevalence of gun violence in the U.S. is a uniquely American problem, one that has gotten worse due to the accessibility of AR-15-style weapons.
The nation is in a “far, far worse place” than in 1999, when there was still a federal ban on assault weapons, Christopher Colwell, MD, chief of emergency medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, who had responded to the scene at Columbine High School, told MedPage Today in May.
Colwell — who also witnessed the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting in 2012 and the San Francisco UPS shooting in 2017 — continues to worry about a specific pattern that has emerged. Often, after there is a mass casualty event, people demand change, but then something else happens and time moves on, he explained.
“The voice of the physician is a really important one to include, in large part because we’re seeing a lot of things that many can’t,” Colwell noted. For instance, he pointed out that while certain events make headlines, there are many others that don’t.
However, there has been movement on addressing gun violence at the federal level.
On June 25, 1 month after the shooting in Uvalde, President Biden signed bipartisan gun safety legislation — the first of its kind passed by Congress in nearly three decades — into law.
The law expanded background check requirements for individuals ages 18 to 21, and established new criminal offenses for straw purchasing and trafficking of guns. It also extended gun-related restrictions to individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors against partners, among other measures.
However, the new law does not address what many in support of more action have floated — reinstating the ban on assault weapons.
“While this bill doesn’t do everything I want, it does include actions I’ve long called for that are going to save lives,” Biden said during the bill’s signing.
On December 14, which marked 10 years since 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Biden addressed the issue again.
“I am determined to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines like those used at Sandy Hook and countless other mass shootings in America,” Biden said in a statement. “Enough is enough. Our obligation is clear. We must eliminate these weapons that have no purpose other than to kill people in large numbers. It is within our power to do this — for the sake of not only the lives of the innocents lost, but for the survivors who still hope.”
However, there will undoubtedly be challenges. In January, Republicans will take control of the House, and would adamantly oppose such a ban.
Colwell said that he doesn’t want action on gun control to grind to a halt after the new federal legislation over the summer.
“It’s so important to recognize that what we’re seeing in the emergency department is something that has to be part of this discussion and as we address this issue,” he noted.
At times, Colwell said he and his colleagues are the only ones who see the many victims of gun violence, including young people from marginalized communities.
When asked whether gun violence as a public health threat may get lost in the shuffle, given the scourge of respiratory infections continuing to crush healthcare facilities across the U.S., Colwell pointed out that “the respiratory issue is a terrible one. It doesn’t mean that gun violence is not.”
In fact, gun violence increased during the pandemic, he added, noting potential contributors like people spending more time together in close environments, and frustrations and difficulties from medical problems and financial woes.
Indeed, there were 610 mass shootings in 2020 and 690 in 2021 compared with 336 in 2018 and 417 in 2019, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. As of December 16, there had been 630 mass shootings in 2022.
“If we forget about gun violence [and] we don’t move the needle,” Colwell said, “we end up in a cycle we can’t get out of.”
When it comes to statements regarding whether guns kill people, or people kill people, he said, “I think we can say ‘yes’ and ‘yes.'”
Ultimately, “just addressing one part of the problem isn’t the answer,” he added. “We wouldn’t attack the pandemic with a one-pronged approach.”