America’s doctor just gave us a prescription to end gun violence. Here’s what his report can’t show you.

OPINION: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called gun violence a public health crisis for the first time, a declaration that’s long overdue. As surgeons, we’ve seen the deadly consequences of gun violence on the nation's children.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy formally declared firearm violence as a public health crisis in America for the first time. That declaration was desperately needed because history tells us that public health declarations can help move the needle on key issues, from smoking to motor vehicle safety. But can it do the same for guns, perhaps the most politically fraught issue in American society?

As surgeons who operate on children who are shot week in and week out, we need it to move the needle. We hope the public recognizes that when health care professionals say that gun violence is a public health crisis, we are speaking out as experts in our field — and as human beings.

We want to take you behind the curtain and explain three aspects of gun violence no report or statistic could capture because they speak to why this report from the surgeon general is so necessary.

One is what you could call “the gap” — something that exists during that brief moment in time between the operating table and the waiting room when we know a child is dead but their parents still hold out hope. It’s not just a gap in knowledge; it’s more physical than that. When you call a “time of death” for a 9-year-old, their chest riddled with bullets from an AR-15, your head gets light, your hands go numb and you can feel the space that’s been opened for a family between the world as it was and the world that now is.

We have to close that space when we walk from the operating room to the waiting room. Trauma surgeons like us are making that walk more often than ever because guns are now the leading killer of children in America. Delivering that news is the apex of “the gap,” the last moment before a mom reads your body language and her family’s life is changed forever.

They don’t teach you about “the gap” in medical school. But even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. No amount of training can prepare you for that, and while you’re reading this, odds are a gap is opening up somewhere in America — where someone dies from gunfire once every 13 minutes.

A second aspect of gun violence that no report can quite convey is the number of hands it takes to treat a patient. As we desperately work to bind the metaphorical gaps in a family and the physical gaps in a child’s organs, hands are everywhere: the anesthesiologist sedating him, the nurse sucking up blood, the resident opening the wound, and the attending picking out the bullet fragments.

The hands don’t end there. From the time a child is shot to the time they leave our hospital, they will receive care and support from somewhere between 50 to 1000 health care workers. That includes doctors and nurses, ICU specialists, respiratory therapists, anesthesiologists, janitors and countless others — every one of them helping to keep a child alive after a needless shooting.

The dollar figures are also shocking. On average, treating a gunshot patient who’s hospitalized is three times more expensive than the average inpatient stay, and initial hospital stays for gunshot victims cost more than $1 billion a year. Public programs like Medicaid pay for half of that cost.

Those health care costs are far greater than just dollars and cents. While victims and their families fully bear the weight of gun violence, once they leave the hospital, there’s a final aspect of gun violence the numbers don’t quite capture: the toll this public health epidemic takes on the public health practitioners trying to treat it.

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During the height of the pandemic, people put up signs and banged pots and pans to recognize health care workers who put their lives on the line to fight a once-in-a-100-years plague. But there is almost no recognition of the emotional toll it takes to treat victims of the unending, daily, and almost entirely preventable plague that is gun violence in America.

Surgeon General Murthy previously warned us about the rise in health care worker burnout. His report revealed half of all health care workers in the U.S. are struggling with mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety. The report also showed that nearly 70% of nurses have recently considered resigning. Our experience tells us that gun violence is a big contributor, and over time, our failure to take common-sense steps to reduce gun violence is going to hurt our health care system as a whole.

In the meantime, we all have different ways of coping. Some of us recite a prayer while we scrub up before operating on a child, sometimes for the second or third time on a shift. Others try to find solace in the idea that when we’re treating gunshot victims, we’re fulfilling our core mission as healers.

We know the incredible people working on the front line will stop at nothing to heal the wounds that guns cause, but tragedies like this cut deep for all involved — from mothers and fathers to surgeons and elementary school teachers, and no amount of medicine can quickly heal that type of hurt.

Sadly, being shot, or being scared of being shot, is now the story of growing up in America, where gun violence is the leading killer of kids and teens. In 2021, there were 2,571 child deaths due to firearms — an increase of 68% in the number of deaths since 2000 and a higher fatality rate than childhood cancer and accidental suffocation combined. For young Black boys, the risk of being shot and killed is startlingly higher than their peers, and it’s increasing at an alarming rate.

But it doesn’t have to be. Americans must realize that gun violence is a self-inflicted plague on our country, and the landmark report released by the surgeon general is both a diagnosis and a prescription. It’s America’s doctor laying out an evidence-based course of action to help save lives. All Americans should listen — and call for action.


Chethan Sathya, M.D., MSc, is a pediatric trauma surgeon and National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded firearm injury prevention researcher. He serves as director of Northwell Health’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention and frequently speaks about his work and research, including a recent interview with the Washington Post on the Surgeon General’s landmark advisory on gun violence.

Jose M. Prince, M.D., leads a team of general pediatric surgeons and is the director of the Laboratory of Pediatric Injury and Inflammation at the Feinstein Institutes’ Center for Immunology and Inflammation. He is an outspoken advocate for gun safety and was one of the physicians featured on the Netflix documentary, “Emergency NYC.”

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