Treat gun violence like the public health crisis it is

Imagine if we stepped up the way we did with COVID

GUN VIOLENCE is a public health crisis. That’s what we continue to hear from healthcare leaders across Massachusetts and the nation.

It may seem odd at first blush to use that designation for the mass shootings that have gripped our nation, especially as we are still living in the reality of a years-long pandemic. But what else could possibly describe a phenomenon that happens every day, claims thousands of lives each year, and weighs on the mental health of every American?

So, yes, gun violence is a public health crisis, and it is time we started treating it like one. Those in the healthcare community know that we can move the needle on this issue because our nation just moved mountains to tackle an emergency that was far less in our control.

Everyone stepped up when COVID-19 struck. Elected officials. Community Leaders. Neighbors who may not see eye-to-eye otherwise. Their collective actions, based on the undeniable evidence of danger in front of them, saved lives.

Imagine if we used that same energy, political will, and common sense to protect our communities against a crisis of our own creation?

Our federal lawmakers have the options at their fingertips, just as they had the levers to pull to acquire protective equipment, strengthen public health protocols, and encourage vaccine adoption. On behalf of our healthcare providers in Massachusetts, I hope they will follow the urgency shown by the Massachusetts congressional delegation and make those solutions a reality.

And because gun violence is a public health crisis, it means our healthcare workers are bearing the brunt.

The same dedicated professionals who have been worn down by an unrelenting virus are the same ones who are called in to treat the horrific injuries – too often fatal – caused by heavy assault weapons.

Armed hatred cost us the lives of four such healthcare workers just in the past week in Oklahoma and Ohio. There is action to be taken in their names, too.

In Tulsa, an aggrieved individual stormed into a busy hospital and shot the doctor who recently performed his surgery. He bought his gun the same day and the note in his pocket spelled out his intentions.

Shootings in medical facilities may be relatively rare. But instances in which people feel emboldened to attack or abuse healthcare workers are more frequent than any of us would want to imagine. Clinicians are well trained to combat aggressive behavior, but they are now in a position to use that training far too often. They entered the medical field to help people, and they should not have to live in fear as a result.

We should waste no time in passing federal legislation to increase penalties for those who assault or threaten healthcare workers. Their employers set zero-tolerance policies within the walls of their individual facilities, but that expectation must be made the law of the land and understood by anyone who even thinks — even for a fleeting moment — that inflicting harm upon a caregiver is acceptable.

Once again, we know this can be done because it has been done before. The federal government recently stepped up to impose new penalties on passengers who assault airline workers. It was the right move for an industry that was facing a swell of abusive behavior.

The frustration of air travel is real, but the emotion of healthcare is even more potent. We at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, on behalf of all our members and healthcare professionals, urge national decisionmakers to take this easy step as an immediate way to support a workforce that has been through enough over the past two-plus years.

Here in Massachusetts, we are grateful that the state Legislature is putting in the hard work on these issues. We continue to partner with leaders on Beacon Hill and in organized labor to adopt measures that would enhance safety protocols, provide comprehensive support for victims of violence, and impose stronger penalties on violent offenders. Hospitals and health systems have long championed these solutions, and we are hopeful that they will be written into law this session.

Gun violence is a public health emergency. Count us in the Massachusetts healthcare community among those demanding action.

Steve Walsh is the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, which represents more than 100 hospitals and healthcare organizations throughout the Commonwealth.