Gun violence should be treated with same urgency as COVID-19, UChicago Medicine’s trauma center director tells congressional panel
March 25, 2021
At a recent Senate hearing on gun violence, the University of Chicago Medicine’s Chief of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery Selwyn O. Rogers Jr., MD, MPH told lawmakers that gun violence is a public health crisis that needs to be treated with the same urgency as COVID-19 and that attention should be focused on people who are likely to use guns, especially those in distressed communities.
Rogers was among eight speakers in the first of a series of congressional hearings led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) called, “Constitutional and Common Sense Steps to Reduce Gun Violence.” It comes on the heels of three mass shootings in the U.S. in March, at a Missouri gas station, three spas in Georgia and a Colorado grocery store.
Rogers, the founding director of UChicago Medicine’s adult trauma center, told the congressional panel about the heartbreak he’s witnessed first-hand. He described the hospital as being in “the epicenter of Chicago’s gun violence,” and that it’s had a 50% increase in gunshot patients since the COVID-19 pandemic began. He attributes this to added stressors on the community, like unemployment, social isolation and reduced access to services.
“We work to the absolute limits of our abilities to save people every day,” Rogers told the panel.
Rogers said Black men account for 57% of gun deaths, and chronic disinvestment in communities of color places them at higher risk of being injured. He added that Congress needs to address the upstream factors that increase those risks through education, street outreach programs that prevent retaliatory violence, investment in high-risk communities and programs to provide cognitive behavioral therapy and transitional jobs, such as Heartland Alliance.
“When we look at gun violence through a public health lens, we collect data, understand causes, and develop strategies for prevention and targeted interventions,” he said. “If we make meaningful investments, we can address the issues that created this epidemic. There are some things that work.”
Sen. Durbin and Rogers have worked together on the Chicago HEAL (Hospital Engagement, Action and Leadership) Initiative, a collaborative network of health care providers and community organizations that work to reduce violence and improve the health in 18 neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides.
Rogers presented a similar argument about gun violence in 2019, when he spoke before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
See Rogers’ full speech below:
Senate Judiciary Committee
March 23, 2021
Testimony of Dr. Selwyn Rogers
Dr. James E. Bowman Jr. Professor of Surgery
Chief, Section of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery
Founding Director, Trauma Center
Executive Vice President, Community Health Engagement University of Chicago Medicine
Good morning. I want to thank the Committee and Senator Durbin for the work he has done to address the serious public health challenge posed by gun violence in our nation.
I appreciate the time you are spending to understand the devastating toll gun violence is taking on Americans and the steps the Senate can take to help protect our children, our communities, and our country.
My name is Dr. Selwyn Rogers, and I serve as Chief of Trauma at The University of Chicago Medicine. My dedicated staff care for people traumatically injured on the South Side of Chicago, the epicenter of much of Chicago’s gun violence. Horrific mass shootings like the recent Chicago Park Manor shootings that injured 15 and killed two people or the metro Atlanta shootings that killed eight people dominate the national news cycle for a day or two, but no substantial changes in policy or actions follow.
Every day in this country, there are over 100 gun-related homicides or suicides that are no less devastating.
At my hospital, we work to the absolute limits of our abilities to save people every day. Far too often, the bullets lead to death. We have a moment of silence to mourn the loss knowing too well that the moment will soon be pierced by screams of anguish. The loved ones plead to tell them that their son, their daughter, their parent is not dead. They ask: “How could this happen?
We do not have all the answers. I would like to propose today that the Senate Judiciary Committee approach gun violence as a public health problem. Public health is the science of protecting the safety and improving the health of communities through education, policy-making, and research for disease and injury prevention. As the former Surgeon General, Dr. David Satcher, said 25 years ago, “[i]f it’s not a public health issue, why are so many people dying?”
Gun violence killed over 43,500 Americans in 2020, according to the independent collection and research group Gun Violence Archive.1 There were over 19,000 gun-related homicides and 24,000 gun-related suicides. Disproportionately, the victims of intentional gun violence are black and brown people from communities of color. Fifty-seven percent of gun homicide victims are black. Gun suicide is a growing national problem. A recent breakdown of suicide by congressional district shows that the hardest hit districts are in the southern and western United States.2 In 11 districts across Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Tennessee, more than 100 residents each year use guns to end their lives.2 Men and boys comprise 86% of all gun suicides.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and America’s reckoning on racism and equity, cities throughout the United States like Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York City saw significant increases in gun violence. At our trauma center, we have seen a 50% increase. We must understand this violence as a public health crisis and address it with the same urgency as COVID-19. When we look at gun violence through a public health lens, we collect data, understand causes, and develop strategies for prevention and targeted interventions. If we make meaningful investments, we can address the issues that created this epidemic.
On the South Side of Chicago, the unemployment rate is more than five times the national average and 43% of children live in poverty. In this unhealthy environment, is it any wonder that we see high rates of intentional gun violence? Similarly, in rural areas that suffer from economic stagnation and individuals may struggle with hopelessness and social isolation, is it any wonder that we see high rates of gun suicide?
We need to develop evidence-based solutions that address the root causes.
Solutions for prevention and treatment of gun violence:
1. Re-frame gun violence as a public health crisis
2. Allocate $1 billion to fund research to prevent gun violence commensurate with the burden on society.
3. Develop and fund primary prevention strategies
A. Invest economically in high-risk communities of color that have a disproportionate burden of intentional gun violence to build jobs, increase earning capacity, provide housing and give people hope
B. Educate and counsel people on safe firearm storage
C. Screen people at risk for firearm injury or death
D. Engage communities on social determinants of disease, such as poverty, and connect them with social services through hospitals and health-care systems
4. Victims of violence are known to be at very high risk to be involved in repeated episodes of violence.3 Target this high-risk population and fund secondary violence prevention programs such as:
A. Street outreach programs that prevent retaliatory violence
B. Programs for those at the highest risk of recidivism that provides transitional jobs and cognitive behavioral therapy.
There are a number of promising programs that we can invest in now. Violence interruption programs, such as Cure Violence or the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, use community outreach workers to help prevent retaliatory violence. Heartland Alliance’s READI Chicago4 or Chicago CRED are evidence-based programs that use transitional employment and cognitive behavioral therapy for at risk individuals to decrease recidivism. At our hospital, as part of Senator Durbin’s HEAL Initiative, we have worked with partners and developed a program that employs community residents who work with victims of gun violence.
Just as the COVID 19 pandemic did not resolve spontaneously, but required interventions to control its spread, the epidemic of gun violence requires active targeted interventions. I strongly urge the Senate to allocate funds to clarify the interventions that work. If sufficient funds are allocated to attract the attention of the brightest minds in the relevant fields, novel approaches will offer new hope to reduce the impacts of this terrible problem.
Gun violence feels like an intractable problem. However, we can look at many examples such as childhood vaccinations, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, and motor vehicle collisions where applying a public health approach has led to a significant number of saved lives.
At trauma centers across this country, we have seen the pain of gun violence. We have cleaned the blood from our hands. Sometimes the blood soaks through our scrubs and socks. We can wash away the blood, but the pain stays with us. I cannot fully grasp the tragic impact of the lives lost. Yet I am still hopeful. If we take concrete actions now, if we do the small things now, then we will create the big changes later. These changes will stem the gun violence that has become such a devastating problem in our nation.
- Gun Violence Archive. Accessed 3/19/21. https://www.gunviolencearchive.org
- The Guardian. Alexandra Villareal. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/06/us-gun-suicide-rural-districts-west-south-report
- Healing Hurt People https://drexel.edu/cnvsj/healing-hurt-people