In summary

We must change the way gun violence is viewed. There is plenty of evidence that restrictions on assault weapons save lives.

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By Andre Campbell, Special to CalMatters

Dr. Andre Campbell is a professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and an attending trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center,

When a federal judge ruled in June that California’s ban on assault rifles was unconstitutional, he compared the gun to a pocketknife. “Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” wrote U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez. 

An AR-15 is a weapon of war, designed to kill an enemy. To equate an assault weapon with a pocketknife is totally wrong: There is no comparison.

For health care providers who treat and care for its victims, gun violence is a public health crisis that demands preventive action. We must change the way gun violence is viewed.

Last year, 20,000 people were killed in gun-related incidents across the country. Mass shootings receive the most publicity, but in major cities, gunshot victims come to the hospital every day. Imagine if 40 large passenger planes crashed every year, killing 20,000 people. We would ground the planes, identify the causes and find solutions. 

We do not have this urgency when it comes to gun violence. We must.

As someone who has worked for more than two decades treating gunshot victims, including those of the 2018 mass shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, let me say what I know from personal experience: The extent of injury created by an assault rifle is exceptionally devastating. It is so by design.

An assault weapon fires bullets faster and causes absolute destruction to the human body. It is as if a bomb went off in the patient’s tissues. The bullets  create a big hole in people: the skin, the muscle, the blood vessels, the nerves, the bone are all destroyed.

There is plenty of evidence that restrictions on assault weapons save lives. A 2019 study found that mass shooting fatalities were 70% less likely to occur when the federal assault weapons ban was in force between 1994 and 2004. 

California’s ban on assault rifles was implemented in 1989, after a mass shooting at a school in Stockton, where five innocent lives were lost and many more were wounded. Determined not to let the federal judge overturn the 32-year-old ban, the California attorney general has appealed Judge Benitez’s ruling. A higher federal court also put his injunction on hold in July, pending decisions on other gun cases before the court.

I do not know how many more lives have been saved during the past three decades California’s ban has been in place. I do know more people will die from gun violence if the ban is successfully overturned.

Medical professionals, including the team I’m honored to work with at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, have become increasingly adept at providing treatment to victims of gun violence — but we can’t save them all.

Each time I have to tell a victim’s family that their loved one is dead, it is heartbreaking. This is the hardest part of my job.

There are interventions being proposed, such as San Jose’s innovative requirement that gun owners carry liability insurance, enhanced federal background checks and “red flag” legislation that allows law enforcement to take guns away from some individuals, and initiatives such as the ZSFG/UCSF Wraparound Project that aim to stop the cycle of traumatic violence at the point of contact with the health-care system.

All of these interventions require community support if we are to achieve meaningful change. 

All require active engagement — to support our elected representatives in passing gun violence prevention laws, to fund prevention programs, to prioritize banning assault weapons. 

We who work on the front lines of health care will continue to do what we can to save individual lives, but we cannot cure this epidemic of violence without you.

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