In light of the #ThisIsOurLane/#ThisIsMyLane social media movement following the NRA’s tweet— “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane”—PW Editor-in-Chief, Linda Girgis, MD, talks with forensic pathologist and key participant in the movement, Judy Melinek, MD, about her experiences with gunshot victims.
LG: Can you tell us about your experiences as a doctor with gunshot victims you have seen?
JM: As a forensic pathologist I autopsy a gunshot wound death at least once a week. I have performed over 3,000 autopsies to date and over 300 of those have been gunshot wounds. About half my cases have been suicides and the other half homicides. I have seen gunshot injuries from small caliber handguns, shotguns, and rifles. I once autopsied a child that was caught in the crossfire. Another time, it was a teenager who refused to join a gang and was shot by gang members. Once I autopsied an entire family when a man shot his three children, his wife and then himself. The most gunshot wounds I have ever found in one person was 43, a man shot by police for pointing his gun at them. Half the cases I see never made it to the hospital: they died at home or on the street. Most of those involve injuries to the head.
LG: Do you think some/all the gunshot wounds in these victims were preventable? How?
JM: Gunshot wounds are preventable if there isn’t easy access to weapons. Many of the suicidal gunshot wounds I see would have been preventable had family members or doctors intervened to take weapons away from depressed or despondent individuals. There is a legal mechanism in some areas that is called an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) which allows law enforcement to take weapons away from individuals who have expressed homicidal or suicidal ideations. We have a responsibility to our patients and their families to ask about weapons in the home and report cases that are at risk to law enforcement.
LG: As a doctor, do you think you have the expertise to talk about gun control/violence?
JM: I have the expertise because I know what these weapons do to the human body and I have been qualified as an expert by the courts to testify in legal cases about gunshot wounds. I am also qualified because as a scientist I understand and interpret epidemiological data to apply the results of the studies to counsel my patients. Doctors are trained to intervene and advise when they see dangerous behaviors. Doctors are trained to evaluate risk factors and address them with referrals to the proper agencies. Doctors were the ones who took on the auto industry and insisted that safety belts be installed in vehicles. Doctors were behind the changes in the laws that restricted smoking advertising to teens and put warning labels on alcohol to warn pregnant women. It is time we spoke out about gun violence and about how we can mitigate the risks of gun ownership.
LG: The CDC just released a statement that the number of deaths due to gunshot wounds has been increasing since 2015. What can/should be done about this?
JM: For one thing, we need to start funding gun control research again. The Dickey amendment in 1996 prevented any research into gun control strategies. Apparently the rule was loosened in the last administration, yet the most recent spending bill doesn’t allow federal funding for research. If we impede gun control research, either by barring it outright or limiting funding, we cannot know what legislation works and what legislation just needlessly interferes with lawful gun ownership.
Even gun manufacturers can benefit from research and development funding to make guns safer and more traceable. Why is it that I can trace my phone using GPS and I can unlock it with my fingerprint and yet we don’t have this technology for guns? It would mean that guns could be recovered easily if stolen and would be useless to someone who grabs it from the rightful owner.
With existing research we know that mandatory waiting times and comprehensive background checks with licensing and training requirements can significantly lower gun suicides. We need to find a way to reach across partisan divides to find strategies like this that work and that don’t violate the second amendment.
LG: Should doctors contribute to any policies around gun control? How?
JM: I think doctors have a role in both speaking out about their own experiences and on behalf of their patients. They also can play a role in conducting and publishing research, thereby contributing to the data necessary to understand the scope of the problem. Those doctors who have weapons and are NRA members have a special responsibility to speak to the leadership of their own organization so that they get back to their original mission, which was gun safety and training.
LG: What did you think/feel when you saw the NRA’s comment telling doctors to “stay in their own lanes”?
JM: I was angry because I was on my way to work to perform another autopsy on another gunshot wound death, the second one in one week. We doctors in the hospitals and morgues of this country see the carnage caused by easy access to weapons. We are also the experts the legal system calls upon to testify in court about the damage caused by weapons. We are scientists and we assess high risk situations to intervene and keep our patients safe. Gun safety is just the kind of issue we should be taking on. As I said in a tweet, it isn’t just our lane – it’s our highway.