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‘Being silenced is not acceptable’: Doctors express outrage after NRA tells them ‘to stay in their lane’

People comfort each other at the family reunification center at the Alex Fiore Thousand Oaks Teen Center after the shooting at Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif. (Philip Cheung/For The Washington Post)

At first, Judy Melinek didn’t know how to respond when she learned about a National Rifle Association tweet last week telling doctors who dared enter the gun debate “to stay in their lane.”

But two days later, when the West Coast forensic pathologist was on her way to the morgue to examine the body of one of the country’s many forgotten gunshot victims, the words came to her.

“Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane,” she tweeted Friday. “It’s my [expletive] highway.”

Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who suffers from a paralyzed vocal cord after taking a stray bullet in the neck almost 25 years ago, refused to stay silent as the country’s latest mass shooting hit the news.

“I have Two Words for you Hell No! #Hell No for #ThousandOaks #Hell No for all black men that die & no one hears about it. #Hell No for all those that we still may be able to save,” Sakran wrote.

Melinek and Sakran are among countless medical professionals who have taken to Twitter in the past few days to fire back at the NRA — creating a viral response that has ricocheted around the Internet under the hashtags #thisisourlane and #thisismylane.

They have taken a debate that has churned for decades among powerful political gun lobbies and in academic journals and relaunched it in the unfiltered Twittersphere. And they have accompanied their indignant messages with photographs of feet sliding on red-splattered floors, of swabs and scrubs drenched in blood, and occasionally of unidentifiable and misshapen torsos heaped on gurneys.

Dr. Babak Sarani, director of trauma and acute care surgery at George Washington University Hospital, explains what bullets do to the human body. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

They write of delivering a shattered baby that saved its mother’s life by stopping a bullet, and of hiding blood and brain matter from parents. They show how the stunned public responses to the Oct. 27 carnage in a Pittsburgh synagogue and then the Nov. 7 shooting in a Thousand Oaks, Calif., country music bar fail to reflect the everyday routine of trying to resuscitate victims in emergency rooms in Baltimore and beyond.

“Being silenced is not acceptable,” Sakran said in an interview, describing how he still keeps the bullet fragment that nearly killed him on his dresser.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Kathleen Bell, a physiatrist at the University of Texas who specializes in patient rehabilitation, said she was working on patient charts in her office overlooking the trauma center’s heliport when she learned about the NRA tweet. She posted on behalf of patients who, she explained, face ongoing indignities and pain long after any public outrage has passed.

“Let me mention lifetimes in wheelchairs with SCI [spinal cord injury],” Bell wrote, “useless arms from brachial plexus destruction, colostomies from belly destruction and years of dependence with TBI [traumatic brain injury].”

The NRA tweet was spurred by a position paper from the American College of Physicians posted on Oct. 30 by the Annals of Internal Medicine and titled “Reducing Firearm Injuries and Deaths in the United States.” The ACP recommended “a public health approach to firearms-related violence and the prevention of firearm injuries and deaths,” saying the medical profession has a “special responsibility” to speak out on the prevention of such injuries and supporting “appropriate regulation of the purchase of legal firearms,” among other measures.

“The College acknowledges that any such regulations must be consistent with the Supreme Court ruling establishing that individual ownership of firearms is a constitutional right under the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights,” the paper said.

The NRA lashed out, first with a Nov. 2 editorial saying that the ACP paper “reflects every anti-gunner’s public policy wish list, save for the outsized role given to doctors,” and accusing the group of being “only interested in pseudo­science ‘evidence’ that supports their preferred anti-gun policies.”

Then on Nov. 7, just hours before 28-year-old former Marine Ian David Long launched his attack at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, the NRA put out its provocative tweet.

“Someone should tell self-
important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane. Half of the articles in Annals of Internal Medicine are pushing for gun control. Most upsetting, however, the medical community seems to have consulted NO ONE but themselves.”

Not only did individual doctors respond in gruesome fury, but the Annals of Internal Medicine told the NRA to stay “out of the exam room” and invited doctors to sign onto a commitment to speak to patients about firearm ownership and safety whenever they see risk factors. “Evidence shows that your counsel could save a life,” the publication tweeted.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also published new data revealing that the death toll from gun violence has begun increasing in recent years after a brief lull.

Still, many doctors are keen to point out that they are not anti-gun. Or even anti-NRA.

“Doctors are not at war with the NRA,” said Heather Sher, a radiologist who has worked in Level 1 trauma centers for almost 17 years and has cared for patients with gunshot wounds from two separate mass shootings. Sher gained prominence after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting when she published an article in the Atlantic about the damage caused by high-velocity bullets from a semiautomatic rifle, which was unlike any handgun injury she had seen.

“It is not an ‘us versus them,’ issue,” Sher wrote in an email. “What we are truly asking for is a coming together of both sides to find a solution to this national health problem.”

Still, some doctors who were familiar with the world of guns couldn’t quell their dismay. Westley Ohman, a vascular surgeon in St. Louis, reset his password on Twitter after a nine-year hiatus.

“I fix blood vessels for a living,” he tweeted. “When you work at a major trauma center, that means fixing blood vessels shredded by bullets. My lane is paved by the broken bodies left behind by your products.”

Ohman, who grew up among guns in Texas, said the response surprised him. It covered “the whole spectrum,” he said, and was “not nearly as black and white as I would have expected.” Responsible gun owners, he said, are tired of the carnage, too.

Richard Sidwell, a trauma surgeon in Des Moines and a gun owner, joined the Twitter debate, arguing that his roles as NRA member and trauma surgeon “are NOT mutually exclusive.”

Some disagreed vehemently.

In an interview, Sidwell said the divisiveness made it hard to find the common ground necessary for improving gun safety. “I am not anti-gun, I own firearms,” he said. “I am anti-bullet hole.”

Sher, who initially tweeted her sorrow about the message the NRA had published, got together with a core group of colleagues later in the week and drafted a letter urging further research and inviting the NRA to join in the effort.

In two days, she said, more than 23,000 doctors and other medical professionals have signed on.

“It is in the NRA’s best interest to help us be part of the solution,” Sher said.