Nikki Stamp is a heart and lung surgeon in Perth, Australia.
I recently saw a patient with a gunshot wound.
That may be an odd thing for me to note, given that I am a surgeon. After all, we see news of gun violence all the time. Over the weekend, we heard about a gunman in California who opened fire in a synagogue, killing one and injuring three. The next day another gunman fired into a crowd in Baltimore, injuring eight people and killing one. In fact, about 100 Americans lose their lives every day from gun-related suicide, assaults or police shootings.
But I’m not an American surgeon. I am an Australian cardiothoracic surgeon, so the gunshot wound I recently saw was the second such wound I have ever seen in my entire career. The patient was a young man who had accidentally shot himself with a self-made gun around a month earlier, and I was seeing him to devise a plan to remove shrapnel from his chest. The first gunshot wound I saw was from a suicide attempt in which a man used a licensed firearm on himself at his farm.
Despite working in busy trauma centers around Australia for more than 16 years, I have found that gun violence is a rarity in our hospitals. My experience is not unusual; very few of my colleagues have ever seen more than a handful of gunshot wounds. Most of the trauma in this country is related to car accidents.
Australia’s lack of gun violence has largely been attributed to the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. On April 28 of that year, Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people and injured 23 others using semi-automatic weapons. Weeks after the event, Australian politicians across the political spectrum legislated a gun buyback program, a ban on self-loading guns, a requirement to prove a genuine need to own a firearm, a licensing scheme, and strict stipulations on the storage of weapons and ammunition. The public supported these moves, selling thousands of guns to the government.
Following Port Arthur, not only have gun-related homicides dropped, but gun-inflicted suicides have fallen as well, with some reports showing as much as a 58-percent decrease. The only mass shooting involving more than five people was in 2018 when a man murdered his family and then killed himself with a lawfully owned weapon.
I would never dream of dictating to another country on their gun laws. Australians and the Americans have always struck me as cousins; we kind of look alike, but we are two very different peoples. Our constitutions and laws differ significantly. And probably most important, Australians do not have a culture of guns as Americans do. It’s not a national pastime to use our firearms in a sporting or recreational fashion.
But in the two times I have seen gunshot wounds in my career, my thoughts fell to my colleagues in the United States. They are always shocked at how little gun violence I have seen as a surgeon. Once, while teaching a surgical course in Europe a few years ago, I relayed the paltry number of gunshot wounds I’ve treated, and my colleagues — mostly Americans — were amazed, noting that they would see one every hour. Some saw more than that.
I cannot offer a solution for the gun epidemic in the United States, but guns are clearly a public health issue. Australia’s gun laws will never be a model for Americans, that much is clear. But what may be a model is our resolve to make meaningful changes. It took one event to change the laws to make guns safer in this country, and I hope that Americans fully commit to make guns safer in a way that is effective and suitable for their legal system. I hope that future American surgeons will someday find gunshot wounds as unusual as I do.