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Northwell hosts 2nd Gun Violence Prevention Forum

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Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords stood outside the Safeway supermarket northwest of Tuscon, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011, chatting with constituents about Medicare reimbursements, when a 22-year-old gunman opened fire, killing six and injuring 11, including Giffords, who was the target of the attack. 

A bullet sliced through the left side of Giffords’s head, and she was placed in a medically induced coma to ease swelling on her brain. When she awoke, she could not speak. She needed two months of speech therapy to mouth the words, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” according to USA Today. 

Nearly 10 years later, her speech is still labored. “Words once came easily, but today I struggle,” she told the audience at Northwell Health’s second Gun Violence Prevention Forum last Thursday, broadcast over the internet. Some 1,200 people from throughout the country registered for the event, which was intended, in part, to reframe the debate over gun control from a battle over the Second Amendment right to bear arms to one of public safety.

The two-hour event featured a long line of speakers from the government, the medical community and private industry, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, long an outspoken proponent of gun control, and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat of Connecticut. 

Nearly 40,000 Americans die of gun violence annually — more than a hundred a day — two-thirds by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, said Americans must recognize that the country is — and has been for a long time — in the middle of a “pandemic of gun violence.”

At Northwell’s first Gun Violence Prevention Forum, held last December in Manhattan, the health system pledged $1 million to fund gun violence research and prevention, and Dowling called on other major health systems across the country to join in the effort and provide funding as well.

Last December, Northwell established the Center for Gun Violence Prevention, headed by Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric surgeon and associate trauma medical director at Cohen Children’s Medical Center on the Queens-Nassau border.

“We have to get behind the root causes” of gun violence, Sathya said at the Dec. 10 forum. 

To that end, Northwell is undertaking a major research study at three of its hospitals, asking patients questions about the firearms they might have in their homes to help determine their risk of injury by gun. The study is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Progress has been made, but there is so much more to do,” Dowling said, emphasizing that the intent is not to deny anyone the Second Amendment right to a firearm, but rather to determine what concrete measures can be taken to reduce gun violence nationally, including which ones must be enacted through federal legislation.

High on the priority list, according to a number of forum speakers, is enacting a federal law to require a universal background check for anyone who purchases a firearm, without loopholes.  

Among the speakers supporting a universal background check was U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Langhorne, Pa., who appeared with Giffords. On gun safety, Fitzpatrick, a former FBI special agent, said Democrats and Republicans “can come together on areas that we agree,” including background checks, estimating that 70 to 80 percent of Americans support them. 

Other speakers, however, spoke of political paralysis in Congress, where special interest groups like the National Rifle Association, which opposes universal background checks, hold sway. 

That is why, Giffords said, Americans must remain politically engaged and apply pressure to lawmakers to act. After she was shot, she said, “I found one word, and I found another.” People can make their voices heard, she said, at the ballot box. 

“We can let this continue,” Giffords said, “or we can act. We can vote. We can be on the right side of history. Vote, vote, vote.”