Bipartisan gun-violence legislation backed by doctors and medical groups passed Congress on Friday — the most significant firearms-control regulation in three decades.
Medical associations including those representing physicians voiced their support for the law and have recently strengthened their messaging on gun reform following mass shootings.
Some doctors who have treated shooting victims say gun violence is a growing public health issue that falls into their purview as firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for people under the age of 20, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The new law will enhance background checks for gun purchasers under 21 years old and provide funding for states to implement red-flag laws, allowing law enforcement to temporarily take guns away from owners deemed a danger to themselves or others. It also provides funding to boost mental health services and to add safety resources at schools.
Still, it excludes other regulations pushed by physicians such as raising the legal age to buy semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 years old, imposing universal background checks and banning the sale of large-capacity magazines.
The bill passed the Senate late Thursday night by a vote of 65-33. The House approved the Senate bill Friday by a vote of 234-193. The White House has said President Joe Biden will sign the legislation into law.
In the wake of high-profile mass shootings around the country, some physicians have labeled gun violence as a public health issue and said their perspectives should be considered in gun-control legislation.
Ronald Stewart, a trauma surgeon at University Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, treated four victims of a mass shooting that killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24.
He also treated victims of another mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that killed 26 people and injured 22 others in 2017.
“Firearm ownership is a constitutionally protected liberty, but we have an epidemic of violence and firearm-related injury and death,” he said during a press conference earlier this month.
Jeffrey Kerby, a trauma surgeon at the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital, said his trauma center has seen a 40% rise in firearm injuries in the past two years, “and these numbers continue to grow.”
About 45,000 firearm-related deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2020, a 13.5% increase from 2019, according to CDC data. The rate of firearm-related deaths held relatively steady from 1999 to 2014, then started rising around 2015, according to the CDC.
The American Medical Association declared firearm-related violence as a public health crisis in 2016 and one of the leading causes of intentional and unintentional injuries and deaths in the U.S.
Groups including the AMA, the American College of Physicians and the American College of Surgeons, among others, released statements following recent mass shootings in support of stronger gun-control measures based on recommendations in a 2018 paper by the ACP published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
At the time, the National Rifle Association tweeted in response to the report that “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”
That ignited the battle between doctors and the gun lobby, now exacerbated by a string of mass shootings.
“We are the undisputed subject matter experts in treating the tragic results,” Patrick Bailey, a pediatric surgeon by training and ACS Medical Director for Advocacy, said during the early June conference.
Bailey noted he is a lifelong gun owner and doesn’t believe the policies recommended by the groups “pose an undue burden on the rights of individual gun owners,” he said.
Bailey and others contend that physicians are well-equipped to speak on an issue they often face at work and say policies making it harder to access guns will help minimize the number of lethal shootings and victims that come to hospitals for treatment.
They also support restrictions on assault weapons “designed to kill as many people as rapidly as possible … like the weapon that was evidently purchased legally and used by the shooter in Uvalde,” the ACP said in its statement.
The Uvalde shooting also put a heightened focus on gun violence faced by children as gun violence surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for people under 20 in 2020, according to CDC data.
Laws around safe gun storage practices could help mitigate firearm violence involving children, along with enhanced penalties for owners of guns used to commit a crime, the groups said. Those policies were omitted from the law that passed Friday.
The AMA said in a statement on Thursday that it applauded the bill’s passage but wanted Congress to go further.
”Physicians across the country see up close and every day the impact these weapons of war have on the human body,” AMA President Jack Resneck said in the statement. “We see it in our emergency departments, in our trauma centers, and, yes, in our morgues.”
Just before Congress passed its gun-control legislation, the Supreme Court on Thursday released a decision striking down a New York law that limits carrying concealed weapons in public.
“While we are discouraged that the high court did not recognize New York’s concealed carry measure as a lawful and necessary response to curbing firearm-related violence — the AMA will remain a strong advocate for firearm regulations as an essential element of effective public-safety policy,” the group said in a statement.