As a doctor, I’ve seen what an AR-15 does to the body. Unless we act, so will many Americans.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew.

When I was in the operating room observing as surgeons repaired the bleeding organs and frayed muscles of a gunshot victim, one horrifying image came to mind: shredded meat.

This was during my trauma rotation years ago in my medical training, and by then, I had seen a few patients with gunshot wounds. But this particular young man lying on the operating table in front of me was shot with a semi-automatic rifle. The damage from any bullet to the human body is astounding, but this was particularly terrifying.

These images have come to mind in recent days as we yet again have a slew of gun violence across our great nation. This week, a gunman killed five at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, using an AR-15-style rifle. In late March, three children and three adults at a school in Nashville, Tennessee, were slaughtered by a shooter who was carrying three guns, including two semi-automatic weapons.

A month before that event, there were multiple mass shootings in Tennessee, Mississippi, Michigan; and a month before that there were more in California, Utah and throughout the United States.

So far in 2023, the nonprofit research group The Gun Violence Archive estimates America has suffered nearly 150 mass shootings, described as four or more shot and/or killed in an incident. That’s an average of more than one per day.

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Gun violence isn’t unavoidable

Gun violence is so widespread that a recent national poll found that almost 1 in 5 American adults have a family member who was killed by a gun, including death by suicide.

Unfortunately, with the sheer number of gun-related tragedies, we are becoming numb. It seems endless, but we cannot fall into the trap of accepting mass shootings as unavoidable American occurrences. Something needs to be done; legislation finally needs to be passed to address gun violence. And as a culture, we need to acknowledge that this is a problem that needs to be fixed.

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We seem to be in a cycle where mass shootings happen, we are upset, but then nothing is done. Arguments are made that it is too soon after shooting, or that politicians are politicizing a tragedy, or that any gun legislation tramples Second Amendment rights. Time goes on, and the issue fades to the background.

I saw this firsthand when gun violence hit a bit closer to home for me. My parents and family members were on vacation in Las Vegas when a shooter fired modified AR-15-style rifles into a music festival, killing 58. My family was just floors below him in the same hotel from which he was raining bullets.

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Barricaded in a room with other vacationers, all they could do was send terrified texts to me and pray. We all felt helpless.

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We aren’t helpless as a nation

But we as a nation are not helpless and can make a change. We need to put pressure on our elected leaders for more comprehensive gun control. We need to expand background checks and reinstate the federal assault rifle ban, which was shown effective in reducing mass shootings. We also need to be open to more studies on gun violence, research the government has traditionally been resistant toward putting money into.

Today, while I no longer am in the operating room, I still see the effects of gun violence on my patients as a hospital medicine doctor.

Many of those I have treated in the hospital have become paralyzed from a bullet to the spine. They come in repeatedly for infections or blood clots from immobility. Others have mental health difficulties or post-traumatic stress disorder from their experience with gun violence.

I’d like to be able to tell them that no one else will suffer the way they have, and that the mass shootings shown so frequently on the news these days will slow down and stop. I continue to hope this will be true, but we need our elected officials to act, and to act now before more lives are lost.

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Dr. Thomas K. Lew. is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care Tri-Valley. All expressed opinions are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasLewMD