How do we cope with an epidemic in the middle of a pandemic? It’s a question I was recently forced to ask myself about gun violence.
Covid-19 has touched every part of our lives, prompting physicians and scientists like me to find ways to combat it. As vaccines are beginning to offer protection from this scourge, people are grateful and hopeful. But not every crisis can be solved by jabbing vaccines into arms.
Covid-19 did not stop the bloodshed by gun violence that has become almost commonplace nationwide. A close brush with gun violence during the pandemic made me wonder how to tackle this threat to the public’s health.
A close brush with gun violence
On a brilliant and brisk Tuesday morning in April, my daily commute to work became anything but routine. As I turned left onto the service road to my workplace at Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research in Frederick, Maryland, a car swerved dangerously from the right lane into mine. I slammed on my brakes to avoid it. The driver then headed perilously into oncoming traffic towards the laboratory. He suddenly stopped, spun the car around, and sped away from the laboratory. My first thought was that this erratic driver was impaired.
But when I arrived at work minutes later, I discovered that the building was on lockdown. The erratic driver, who I later learned was an active duty Navy medic, had just shot two other servicemen. That senseless drama unfolded within line of sight of my office. The injured sailors were rushed to a nearby trauma center. One was released a day later. The other, who required intensive care, has since been released.
From there the gunman drove to Fort Detrick, where security guards confronted and killed him.
This incident, though tragic, was neither rare nor unique. It did not even meet the definition of a mass shooting. According to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, that term should be used only when four or more people are shot, injured, or killed — not including any shooter(s). But it certainly gripped my attention.
On the same day, President Biden spoke about separate incidents that happened at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, and across Atlanta, Georgia, where Asian-Americans were victims. These were true mass shootings. He likened them to an epidemic and announced plans to curb this gun violence.
Sheltered as I had been from gun violence, I had not thought of it before as an epidemic. But my close brush with it made me take a fresh look.
Tackling an epidemic
As a doctor, I have dealt with epidemics like the seasonal flu. My colleagues and I use diagnostics to identify people at risk, and offer treatments to reduce symptoms. We use public health measures to contain the virus. And we have vaccines, like those now used for Covid-19, to provide immunity to the contagion. Each is part of a well-orchestrated armamentarium that is based on years of research.
But we have nothing like this to stop the epidemic of gun violence.
The Gun Violence Archive reported 43,557 people in the United States died in 2020 from gun violence. More than 600 people died in mass shootings or mass murder, and more than 24,000 of these deaths by firearms were from suicide. The number of gun deaths is more than the nearly 39,000 traffic deaths in 2020. This is the magnitude of the epidemic.
Facing this health challenge is in the public’s interest. And we cannot wait for a “vaccine” to make progress.
But advances can occur without a one-step solution.
Consider the fight against HIV/AIDS, which still has no cure. I first saw that alarming infection in New York City during my residency in the 1980s. The viral origin of HIV/AIDS, which was eventually proven, did not halt the heartache and stigma that fell disproportionately on gay or bisexual men, intravenous drug users, and people with hemophilia who acquired the disease. I recall images of my former patients like haunting daguerreotypes.
HIV/AIDS claimed more than 40,000 lives a year in the United States during the 1990s. But a collaborative and sustained strategy led to historic headway against this epidemic. Scientists, physicians, policymakers, public health strategists, and others united against the virus.
Collectively, they reduced the spread of HIV through public health policies like securing the safety of the American blood supply. And they brought forth practice-changing drugs to keep the virus in check. They transformed this lethal malady into a chronic one. This milestone came about through a collaborative and steadfast commitment to stop the virus. It took time.
Advances against gun violence can happen, too.
In 1996, U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) sponsored the eponymous amendment that blocked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from sponsoring or funding research “to advocate or promote gun control,” essentially halting research on gun violence. After retiring, Dickey penned a commentary in 2015 in the Washington Post with his former adversary, Mark Rosenberg, who had headed the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Together they urged federal funding for research into gun violence. In late 2019, after a two-decade freeze, U.S. lawmakers reached an agreement that would once again fund gun-violence research.
Dickey and Rosenberg, who had clashed for years, ultimately found common ground. They wanted research into gun violence while protecting gun rights saying in an earlier Washington Post opinion piece: “We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it.”
“Look for it” is what experts do to understand what causes an epidemic. It is the first step toward finding solutions. Former foes came together to help protect American families and communities. We should listen to them and heed their message about gun violence.
Ethan Dmitrovsky is a physician-scientist, president of Leidos Biomedical Research, and director of the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research.