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April 8, 2013
Guest Opinion: California can still do more to prevent gun violence

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(April 8 -- By Lynette Scherer and Garen Wintemute, Special to The Bee)

One of us is a trauma surgeon, and the other is an emergency physician. We work at UC Davis Medical Center, the Sacramento region's Level 1 trauma center. When someone is shot in Sacramento or anywhere near here, the paramedics often bring them to our hospital.

The most critically injured patients may be transferred by air from many miles away. Teams of physicians, nurses and other health professionals from our departments work quickly to resuscitate and stabilize patients with gunshot wounds, knowing that minutes matter. These teams are good at what they do - good enough that the military sends its surgeons to us for training before sending them to treat combat casualties overseas.

Last year, our hospital admitted 152 people who had been shot; others were seen in the emergency department and discharged. The care we provide doesn't end when the wounds heal, of course. We also see patients with acute and chronic medical conditions linked directly to gunshot wounds that occurred as long as decades ago.

While we are proud of our work, we recognize its limits. Only 15 of our admitted patients died from their wounds, but this is largely because most people who die from gunshot wounds die right at the shooting scene. Of those who make it to an emergency department like ours and die nonetheless, many are already under CPR when they arrive, and most have wounds that are simply not survivable - not now, and not in any foreseeable future.

To us, as clinicians, this means that in order to continue to reduce the number of people who die from firearm violence, we must also work to prevent them from being shot in the first place. Both of us do such prevention work; one of us has been involved for more than 30 years.

California has much to be proud of in preventing firearm violence. Innovative policies enacted by the Legislature, and public and private violence prevention programs, have made our state a model for the nation. Our firearm-related death rate ranks 34th among the 50 states, in a listing from highest to lowest. Rates in our next-door neighbors Nevada and Arizona, averaged over 10 years from 2001 to 2010, are nearly 80 percent higher than California's.

There is still much work to do. About 3,000 people die from gunshot wounds in our state every year; this is 3,000 too many. And we must remember that firearm violence destroys many more lives than it takes. For every person who dies, another two to three people are seriously injured and survive. Many of them face long-term consequences. The burden imposed by these deaths and disabilities extends to family members, neighbors and entire communities.

We therefore applaud the continued efforts of policymakers in California to reduce firearm violence. The Legislature is considering a wide array of proposals that will make a significant difference if enacted. Among them is one to enforce, systematically, the state's prohibition on firearm possession by felons, other violent criminals and the dangerously mentally ill. There is good evidence that this will prevent violence, yet no other state has tried it.

Another would establish a 10-year prohibition on firearm purchases and possession for active alcohol abusers, defined as people with two or more convictions for alcohol-related offenses, such as driving under the influence, within five years. Given the clear links between alcohol abuse, firearm misuse and violence, this proposal is long overdue.

The remaining proposals include several that would improve our regulation of assault-type firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines and establish first-ever oversight for sales of ammunition.

We are heartened by new public opinion polls showing that these proposals receive strong support from Californians, including young and old, men and women, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Firearm owners generally - and National Rifle Association members specifically - support many such measures.

Such a consensus for action presents California and its leaders with a rare opportunity to advance our state's collective health and safety, our security and freedom. As we continue our work, we applaud our fellow citizens for stepping up to the challenge of preventing firearm violence.

Dr. Lynette Scherer and Dr. Garen Wintemute are faculty at the UC Davis School of Medicine and attending physicians at UC Davis Medical Center. Scherer is chief of the division of trauma and emergency surgery, department of surgery. Wintemute is a professor of emergency medicine and the inaugural Baker-Teret chair in violence prevention.

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