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Physicians speak up about gun violence as Maine grieves from mass shootings

A member of security (right) stands at an emergency department entrance at Central Maine Medical Center during an active shooter situation, in Lewiston, Maine, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.
Steven Senne
AP file
A member of security (right) stands at an emergency department entrance at Central Maine Medical Center during an active shooter situation, in Lewiston, Maine, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

As a pediatric critical care physician in southern Maine, Dr. Kristine Pleacher has treated children with gunshot wounds. So when reports came in a year ago that active shooters were in 10 Maine schools, she was prepared to respond.

"It was terrifying," she says.

Terrifying, Pleacher says, because assault-style weapons are often used in mass shootings and are much more deadly than standard firearms — especially for children.

"I truly wondered if I would be able to do anything. If my presence would save any lives," she says. "Could I do anything useful other than bear witness to grief?"

The school shooting reports turned out to be a hoax. But in the months since, there have been two very real mass shootings in Maine.

Most recently, in Lewiston, "and then we had the mass shooting last spring in a home and then onto the interstate," says Pleacher. "And that was scary. And it feels like things are just ramping up."

Mass shootings, defined by the Gun Violence Archive as anytime four or more victims are shot or killed, are on the rise in the U.S. Three years ago, they nearly doubled to more than 600 and have kept pace at that rate every year since. But that represents just one form of gun violence, says Dr. Richard King, medical director of trauma at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

"As a trauma surgeon, even on a daily basis before it meets the newsprint, I'm taking care of people who have accidentally shot themselves, children, suicides, homicides," says King, who is speaking for himself and not the hospital.

King says it's time to rethink how gun violence is talked about.

"Guns are a public health problem, just like automobiles. You know, nobody questions the research that we've done successfully into automobile safety and patients survive now much more than they did decades ago," he says.

But many reform advocates say the effort to approach gun violence as a public health issue has been hampered by a lack of research. A congressional amendment in 1996 prohibited federal dollars from being used to promote gun control, effectively banning research for more than two decades.

Five years ago, Congress clarified that federally funded studies could explore the causes of gun violence. Though some research has resumed, critics say the funding levels are inadequate.

Still, physicians say there are steps that can be taken now.

"We know that weapons with high capacity magazines and assault weapons with the express ability to maim and kill multiple amounts of people in a short period of time really just have no place in the hands of private citizens," says Dr. Joe Anderson, a pediatric hospitalist and advocacy chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Maine.

"I was born and raised in Fort Kent and went hunting with my dad lots of times, and he was also a former police officer," Anderson says. "I grew up with a healthy respect for guns, and I certainly don't see myself as an anti-gun person."

Anderson says he's pro-safety. The AAP is also supporting safe storage requirements, background checks and red flag laws. The Maine Medical Association calling for similar actions to reduce firearm violence, as is the American College of Surgeons.

Dr. Chris Turner, a pediatric trauma surgeon and a board member of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, says there's also a need to tailor policies to respond to what's happening in Maine.

"Every place has a problem," he says, "but each place has a slightly different problem."

Until more Maine-specific data are available, Turner sees part of his role as being a vocal witness to the firearm injuries he treats in children. Most cases are suicide attempts. In fact, the majority of firearm deaths in Maine and the U.S. are by suicide.

"And those conversations are some of the hardest and saddest conversations that I have in the hospital," he says. "And I think one of the things that scares me, is a mass casualty with an assault weapon. The severity of those injuries, there's not anything else that's going to be so significant life or death decisions that doctors need to make."

Corrected: November 17, 2023 at 8:14 AM EST
Dr. Joe Anderson is advocacy chair, not board chair, of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Maine.

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