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Massacre of the Innocents: Can Anything be Done?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

The Massacre of the Innocents is the incident in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18) in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, orders the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents' Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December.

The tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas is not only a senseless act of violence but one that has become part of the culture of America. It has been 10 years since Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Some things have changed since then; others have not.

Certainly, there is even more political polarization and demonization of those with whom we disagree. Guns, an American staple, have become even more readily available to just about anyone, depending on the state in which you live. As demonstrated by an 18-year-old being able to purchase two military style assault weapons on his own before committing the massacre. He had no known prior mental health issue, the typical ‘blame’ placed on killers in these types of circumstances. While words like evil and deranged certainly appropriately come to mind we need to look a little closer to determine the reasons for these types of killings. Perhaps the mirror is a place to start.

For 25 years, I practiced emergency medicine in rural, suburban, and urban areas. I practiced in trauma and non-trauma centers. Interpersonal violence is part of the stock and trade of every emergency department in the US.

My training involved spending time at a world-renowned trauma center, Shock Trauma, in Baltimore Maryland in the mid 90s. We accepted patients not only from Baltimore but all over the state of Maryland and region. Taking care of both blunt trauma like motor vehicle crashes and falls as well as penetrating trauma in the form of gunshot wounds and stabbings. Prior to that as part of my medical school training I spent time on the trauma service at DC General Hospital which, at the time, was the busiest center in Washington, DC. It took care of numerous shootings and stabbings frequently on a nightly basis.

We learned about the impact of high velocity rounds used in military style weapons where the bullet is designed with increased ‘yaw’ to essentially tumble when it strikes a body causing damage like a blast injury within your tissue.

It brings me to near tears to think about the damage these type of projectiles did to 8-10 year old bodies. For those accustomed to TV shows showing a few drops of blood after someone has been shot, it is shocking to see the true damage that is done to the human body by these types of bullets.

I’ve listened to the typical responses by those who advocate increasingly arming teachers, school resource officers and ‘hardening’ soft targets like schools. No doubt there will be pictures on social media of heavily armed guards protecting our children. Is this really what we want our schools to be? Armed fortresses ready to repel heavily armed attackers.

As the ability to obtain more lethal weapons increases in the general population should we think about providing school guards with Switchblade drones to stay one step ahead of the arms race?

Let us review some facts:

School shootings are considered by many to be an epidemic in the United States, as is gun violence in general. According to data from Everytown Research, the United States averaged just over 87 school shootings each year from 2013 to 2021, resulting in an annual average of 28.4 dead and 59.6 wounded. A 2018 CNN feature used slightly tighter criteria and tallied a comparatively lower 288 school shootings in the United States between 2009 and 2018—however, the country with the second-most school shootings during that period, Mexico, experienced only eight shootings during that same time period. For all of Europe that (total) number was 5 in the same time period.

Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) U.S. murders in 2020 – 19,384 out of 24,576 – involved a firearm.

Though they tend to get less public attention than gun-related murders, suicides have long accounted for the majority of U.S. gun deaths. In 2020, 54% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were suicides (24,292), while 43% were murders (19,384), according to the CDC. The remaining gun deaths that year were unintentional (535), involved law enforcement (611) or had undetermined circumstances (400).

We need sensible and safe gun laws. I say this as a gun owner myself. We purchased a 22-caliber rifle for my 12-year-old son in the last year to use for target practice and since he showed an interest in hunting. We filled out the information required by state laws in Maryland including a background check. We were taught gun safety by an experienced and lifelong gun owner. The rifle is stored in a safe room, the ammunition is kept separately, and a trigger lock is on the weapon.

Sadly, safe gun storage is not the norm. Why should we not require someone purchasing a gun to undergo basic safety training especially if this is your first time purchasing a weapon?

Many have heard the stories of a, typically, young man bringing an unsecured gun into a classroom and either threatening or shooting a classmate or teacher. Young men, as any parent knows, are prone to impulsive acts. I have witnessed my share of young men ending their life or someone else’s through the combination of excessive speed and alcohol while driving a motor vehicle. When you mix access to a lethal weapon to these situations the results can be even more tragic.

Another claim is that preventing ready access to weapons will put some people’s lives in danger, specifically women. The fact: every month in the US, an average of 70 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner despite this ready access. According to Everytown Research nearly 1 million women alive today in the U.S. have reported being shot or shot at by intimate partners, and 4.5 million women have reported being threatened with a gun by an intimate partner. In more than half of mass shootings over the past decade, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member as part of the rampage.

A final thought on mental illness. It is easy to blame mental illness in these tragedies. I have witnessed the lack of funding in this area in emergency departments we continue to use as ‘holding areas’ for many people with mental illness. But mental illness is not the issue. One question to ask is if there is so much more mental illness in the US in comparison to the rest of the world? No. The one variable that is different is ready access to guns in the US. That fact must be acknowledged especially considering the statistic above on suicides by guns.

Thoughts and prayers are important. Action needs to follow if we are to stop this senseless ongoing loss of innocent life.

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