Md. congressman drafts violence prevention program bill because 'even small actions are better than thoughts and prayers'

You may have heard about the social media firestorm that erupted earlier this week between the National Rifle Association and doctors around the country. Responding to a position paper from the American College of Physicians that suggested a public health approach to gun violence, the NRA took to Twitter to urge “self-important” physicians to “stay in their lane.”

I’d urge the NRA to talk to some of the emergency room surgeons here in Maryland — particularly those at the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma in downtown Baltimore — and ask them if they deserve a voice in the gun control debate as they pull bullet after bullet from patients. As one of the nation’s busiest and best-ranked centers, 8,000 patients come through Shock Trauma’s doors a year, a staggering 20 percent of whom are victims of violence. Most of these are stabbings and shootings, and that figure is rising at an alarming rate.

Dr. Tom Scalea, physician-in-chief at Shock Trauma, says that many of his patients with gunshot wounds are “repeat customers.” They are caught up in the drug wars, the culture of retaliation and “disrespect,” to borrow his words. In fact, the rate of violent re-injury at most trauma centers is as high as 45 percent. One of the leading risk factors for violent injury is a prior violent injury.

Here in Maryland, Shock Trauma doctors have created a Violence Intervention Program to reduce this “revolving door phenomenon.” Recovering patients are a captive audience, confined to a bed and off the streets, if only for a few days. The program provides them with a bed-side assessment, counseling and social support. Sometimes they just need a little help — groceries, bus money or some clothes. Often, they need help finding an affordable apartment or getting off drugs or landing a job.

The program’s founder, Dr. Carnell Cooper, says he has demonstrated a decline in violent re-injury, recidivism, jail time, cost of incarceration and unemployment.

Many Marylanders know that my life was saved at Shock Trauma after a horrific car crash in the 1970s. I remain an active member of their board and one of the hospital’s loudest cheerleaders. And I want the rest of the country to benefit from the amazing work that is going on under its roof.

That is why I am drafting legislation to take the Violence Intervention Program nationwide. My bill will start small — I’d like to provide five more hospitals with a federal grant to do this over the next three years. We will monitor the process and have them report back to Congress.

It is my hope that, eventually, every hospital in America will have a program like this.

This bill doesn’t replace the other common sense measures Congress must pass to keep guns away from bad guys, like universal background checks. There are also things we must do to reduce the carnage: ban bump stocks, high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. We should also provide resources to state and local law enforcement to put a resource officer in every school in America.

But until all lawmakers stand up to the gun lobby once and for all, these are pipe dreams. Remember, House Republicans beholden to the NRA have actually pursued looser gun laws this year — bills that deregulated the sale of silencers and would allow more people to carry guns without training. They have even gone so far as to stop the collection of data on gun violence in America to prevent meaningful research on the motivations behind gun crimes.

My bill is easy for members of both parties to support. It won’t cost much, and the impact will be immediate. Even small actions are better than thoughts and prayers.

Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger is a Democrat representing the Second District of Maryland. He is a member of the University of Maryland Shock Trauma’s Board of Visitors. Twitter: @Call_Me_Dutch.

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