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How the NRA prevents doctors in Florida from connecting the dots between guns and public health

Silence is deadly

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In the five years Wollschlaeger and his co-plaintiffs have spent fighting in court, there's been mass shooting after mass shooting, and sadly, the physician says the Pulse shooting in Orlando has already turned into just another statistic. After the world collectively turned away from the City Beautiful to the next tragedy, someone has killed someone else with a gun every few days in Orange County. From June 10 to Aug. 25, 20 other people in Orange County lost their lives to gun violence. Unlike the Pulse victims, national TV crews weren't clamoring outside their relatives' homes to learn more about them. But they too left questions unanswered, beds empty and dreams deferred.

"We have to stop being a reactive society that wrings our hands and cries in front of the camera," he says. "We're so numb, so conditioned to the onslaught of this news, we don't pay attention anymore. "If the murder and slaughter of children doesn't change our minds, why should Orlando be different?"

At the national level, the ban on funding research into gun violence persists in the face of so much tragedy because conservative lawmakers are convinced that research will inexorably lead to regulation.

At least one local doctor is trying to change that response. On June 12, Dr. Michael Cheatham and the Orlando Regional Medical Center staff were on the front lines of the Pulse crisis, doing surgery after surgery on victims.

After the city calmed down, Cheatham pushed for more federal money to research gun violence and traveled with other trauma surgeons to speak with members of Congress about what could be done to reduce gun violence, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

"There were the cries of anguish, screams, doors slamming, family members punching the wall when they realized their loved one's name had not been read off of the list of survivors," Cheatham told the Sentinel. "I will never forget that. I don't want to ever see so many families so devastated again."

There hasn't been research from the federal government on gun violence since a 1993 study by the New England Journal of Medicine. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study found that "keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide," according to the American Psychological Association. Incensed, the NRA persuaded members of Congress in 1996 to strip the CDC's funding for gun violence research – $2.6 million. Later, Congress forbade the CDC from using any funds "to advocate or promote gun control." While the laws didn't technically ban gun research, CDC directors have avoided studying guns. Even after President Obama ordered the CDC to "conduct or sponsor research into the causes of gun violence and the ways to prevent it" following the Sandy Hook carnage, the federal agency hasn't budged, citing a continued lack of funding from Congress.

The data we do have on gun deaths is pretty startling. In 2013, firearms accounted for 33,636 deaths in the United States. More than 11,000 of those were classified as homicides. Compounding that, 21,175 people committed suicide using a gun.

Florida, meanwhile, has about 1.38 million concealed carry permits, more than any other state. Firearms were responsible for about 18 percent (2,375) of Florida's fatal injuries in 2014, according to data from the state Department of Health. Out of those fatalities, 63 percent were suicides.

As some physicians have pointed out, research on guns may not lead to a ban on firearms or support solutions that gun control advocates have called for. But it would let Americans make their own informed opinions about what causes gun violence.

For her part, Hammer rejects a connection between guns and public health, calling it an "anti-gun" agenda, and wouldn't discuss a possible compromise between the two camps. When asked if she believed the NRA would ever be open to the idea of re-examining existing legislation on firearms, Hammer was clear about her opinion.

"That is the dumbest question I have been asked in 40 years," she told us.

At a rally Aug. 17 at the Hammered Lamb for the Pride Fund, a political action committee focused on electing pro-LGBTQ candidates who support sensible gun control, commissioner Patty Sheehan says she's still in crisis mode, as if the mass shooting that robbed 49 people of the rest of their lives had happened just yesterday. Whether you agree with her or not about guns, she wants to talk.

"This is the worst mass shooting in America, and you don't want to talk about guns?" Sheehan says, clapping vehemently between words. "That's insane."

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