Today I watched a boy bleed to death.
I watched as a dozen doctors and nurses poked him, ventilated him, poured blood into his veins, sliced open his grotesquely swollen limbs to prevent gangrene. I watched as, despite their efforts, despite two operations in a few hours, his teenage body continued to hemorrhage beyond repair. I watched his parents standing outside the room, anxious and tearful. I watched his extended family gathered outside the hospital, holding one another, waiting for word.
This is what guns do.
Yesterday he was just another teenager worrying about all the usual adolescent things. This morning he got in an argument with another teenager over a phone. We all know how stupid teenagers can be, and we’ve all done something like that at some point in our lives. But this time one of them had a gun, and one body lies cold and blue in the morgue, while another is in detention. Two lives destroyed, two families shattered.
This is what guns do.
I am not here to make a political argument, because this isn’t a political problem. It’s a public health problem: a public health crisis. If that boy, and the tens of thousands of others that meet a similar fate every year in this country, had bled to death from Ebola no one would hesitate to acknowledge that. It’s made out to be a political problem because a few truly evil people (I’m talking to you, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre), cynically manipulate genuine concerns about the balance between public well being and constitutional rights. But facing public health threats always requires such a balance. Tobacco, automobile crashes, polio – all of these were addressed by reasonable, common sense restrictions on rights, in the form of requirements (you must wear a seat belt, you must get immunized) and prohibitions (you may not buy cigarettes if you are under 16, you may not drive above the speed limit), which have been readily accepted by the public.
We will continue to see thousands of people die by murder or suicide, and many thousands more wounded, until gun violence is seen as a health crisis. More people need to see what I did this morning. We need to stop letting Wayne LaPierre set the agenda. Instead, we need a Mamie Till.
When Mamie’s son Emmett was brutally tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, she insisted that the world needed to see what she saw. His battered corpse was on view in an open casket funeral attended by hundreds and shown in newspapers around the world. Racial violence was no longer an abstraction that could be glossed over. It was a raw, ugly reality not only to its victims, but to the entire public. It was a key moment in spurring the civil rights movement.
Sadly, the death I watched didn’t even make the news. After all, there isn’t enough room in the papers to report on every person felled by a gun. But crime still sells, and there are plenty of media items about gun violence. In the wake of recent mass shootings, the New York Times ran its first front page editorial in almost a century. That won’t do it. People don’t need to be convinced, they need to be shocked out of complacency. We need to stop showing photos of the perpetrators, or grainy high school yearbook pictures of the victims. We need to show graphic, gruesome images. Family survivors need to do what Mamie Till did – make everyone share your horror and grief. Everyone needs to see what guns really do.