WAIKOLOA, HAWAII (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Nearly 90% of American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma members believe that the ACS should give the highest or a high priority to reducing firearm-related injuries, according to results from a national survey.

“In the United States, we value personal liberty and personal safety highly,” Deborah A. Kuhls, MD, FACS , said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma. “However, that sometimes leads to a polarized view on firearms. Some view it as a freedom in personal safety. Others view it as a limitation of freedom and [as promotion of] violence.”

According to National Trauma Data Bank/Trauma Quality Improvement Program data from 2014, falls rank as the leading mechanism of injury sustained by patients treated at trauma centers in the United States (44%), followed by motor vehicle crashes (34%), and firearms (4%). However, because firearm injuries are so lethal, death by falls, motor vehicle crashes, and firearms are roughly equivalent, in the range of 10.4 per 100,000 to 10.6 per 100,000, with the societal cost of firearms injury estimated to have been $174 billion in 2010 ( Surgery 2014;155[5]:894-8 ). “This is roughly double the Department of Education budget and triple the Department of Homeland Security budget,” said Dr. Kuhls, professor of surgery and chief of critical care at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and chair of the ACS Committee on Trauma (COT) Injury Prevention and Control Committee.

In an effort to evaluate ACS COT member attitudes about firearm ownership, freedom, responsibility, physician/patient freedom and policy, with the objective of using survey results to inform firearm injury prevention policy development, Dr. Kuhls and the COT Injury Prevention and Control Committee developed a 32-item anonymous survey that was sent to 254 COT members between December 2015 and February 2016. Results were extracted by ACS staff.

Of 254 COT members who received the survey, 237 completed the survey, for a response rate of 93%. Their mean age was 52 years, and 88% were male, 88% were married, 85% were white, and 58% had children in the home. More than one-quarter (29%) had military experience, 88% practiced acute care, trauma, general surgery, or pediatric surgery; 43% had firearms in the home, and 33% had personal experience with a family or friend injured or killed from firearm injury. A significantly higher proportion of respondents with military experience had firearms in the home, compared with those who had no military experience (56% vs. 37%, respectively; P less than .01). By Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demographic region, the percentage of members who have firearms in their home was lowest in the Northeast (14%), followed by the West (38%), the Midwest (48%), and the South (56%).

Dr. Kuhls also reported that 88% of respondents indicated that they think the ACS should give a high or the highest level of priority to firearm injury prevention. When asked about private ownership of firearms, about 53% thought that gun ownership is generally beneficial/an important personal liberty, while 30% believed that gun ownership is generally harmful and limits personal liberty. The remaining 17% had no opinion on the issue.

The majority of respondents (95%) said that health care professionals should be allowed to counsel patients (or parents of patients) about how to prevent gun-related injuries, while 96% felt that the CDC and other federal agencies should fund research on the epidemiology and prevention of gun-related injuries.

Survey respondents were then asked to rate their opinion on the ACS initiating efforts to advocate for or support legislation on 15 possible initiatives to prevent firearm violence, ranging from “improve mental health screening and treatment to reduce suicides and gun violence” to increase penalties when guns [are] provided to others illegally including dealers” to “require safety features, including child-proof locks and ‘smart gun’ technology,” and “identify and implement evidence-based injury prevention programs.”

The greatest consensus was reached in the advocacy area titled “improve mental health screening and treatment to reduce suicides and gun violence” (ranging from 89% to 93%), while the least consensus was in the advocacy area titled “require firearms owners to be 21 years of age or older” (ranging from 41% to 71%).

The most common themes that emerged on qualitative analysis were concern that the topic is too political, as well as calls to improve existing data “to understand what role we can play in injury prevention,” and that “surgeons should be involved in solving the problem,” Dr. Kuhls said. “There were also a lot of comments on responsible ownership.” She noted that more than 90% of respondents support 7 out of 15 proposed initiatives, 80%-90% support an additional 3 initiatives, and 70%-80% support an additional 4 proposed initiatives.

The invited discussant, Ernest E. Moore, MD, FACS, a surgeon in Denver, described the effort to develop firearm injury prevention policy as laudable. However, “this process carries a risk of merely supporting the bandwagons already in motion,” Dr. Moore said. “In that light I would like to focus on the conspicuous areas of disagreement, specifically civilian access to assault rifles. The fundamental issue is the magazine capacity of rifles – housing 30 or more bullets, enabling rapid shooting. Mass shootings, defined as greater than or equal to five victims, are currently an epidemic in our country. The volatile issues are eliminating assault rifles to reduce mass shootings [and] the interpretation of the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms. I do not believe a randomized prospective trial is necessary to establish the fact that mass shootings are only feasible because irresponsible individuals have access to these weapons. The urgency in this issue is heightened by the reality that mass shootings are increasingly inspired by terrorist activity, beyond individuals traditionally considered mentally ill.”

Dr. Kuhls described the current survey as “the initial step” in an effort to develop firearm injury prevention policy. “We are just about to receive results from a survey of the Board of Governors for the ACS,” she said. “We plan to develop short- and long-term plans to address this public health challenge that leverages survey consensus findings in four ACS pillars: advocacy, quality, systems, and education. We need to continue this conversation.” She expressed gratitude to the COT Executive Committee and liaison members from the ACS Board of Regents in addition to members of the COT Injury Prevention and Control Committee. She reported having no financial disclosures.