Unplanned comment leads Stanford doctor to champion gun violence prevention

After a statement about guns ended prospects for a government appointment, a Stanford professor joined a student in forming a nonprofit to address the public health issue.

Dean Winslow

For Dean Winslow, MD, one comment last fall served as an ending and a beginning.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, two days after the mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Stanford professor of medicine and retired Air Force colonel opined that it was “insane … that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic weapon like an AR-15.”

He quickly fell out of contention for the post of assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. But the reaction from friends and colleagues in the medical community — and his own subsequent reflection — spurred Winslow to do something he’d never before considered: spearhead a nonprofit organization for health care professionals working to address the dangers of gun violence.

The group is called Scrubs Addressing the Firearms Epidemic, or SAFE, and aims to unify voices of physicians, nurses and medical students. The mission is to reduce gun violence by promoting firearm safety education for caregivers, supporting research and advocating for evidence-based policies that reflect responsible gun ownership and respect the Second Amendment.

First national event Sept. 17

The organization’s first national event, Stand SAFE, will take place on Sept. 17. Medical students and health professionals are encouraged to wear scrubs customized with the SAFE logo, convene briefly in a show of solidarity at noon local time, and hold gun violence-related education activities.

“We’re looking at this from the perspective of people who care for victims of gun violence — including children — and as people who also have actually seen gun violence up close,” Winslow said. “And we really feel that our country can do better in terms of reducing the terrible toll.”

Stanford’s SAFE rally will be held at noon on the Dean's Lawn, next to the Clark Center, followed by an educational event at 12:30 p.m. at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.  Confirmed speakers include Winslow; John Donahue, JD, PhD, professor of law; and David Spain, MD, professor of surgery. First-year medical students also will receive training on how to respond to a life-threatening bleeding emergency before paramedics arrive.

A common goal: Keep people healthy

Recognizing the nation’s political deadlock on firearms, SAFE focuses on the public health aspect of gun violence prevention — an area of agreement among numerous medical organizations.

The idea, said SAFE co-chair Sarabeth Spitzer, is to emphasize a common goal of keeping people healthy.

“We need to do thorough, nationwide research to figure out what are the most effective ways to prevent these injuries,” said the fourth-year Stanford medical student, who has published work on the cost of hospitalizations for firearm injuries. “And once we have evidence to show certain policies are effective, we should implement those policies as soon as possible.”

We really feel that our country can do better in terms of reducing the terrible toll.

The approach has resonated in the health care community, where projects with a similar focus have sprouted. SAFE intends to provide an umbrella for like-minded professionals: Many physicians, academics and students have signed on to the team and advisory board, and in a matter of weeks, three dozen medical schools have established chapters.

The participation of future physicians, along with the nonpartisan, clinical focus, distinguishes the effort, said Michelle Sandberg, MD, a member of the SAFE advisory board who also was a founding board member of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

“What is really compelling to me is this passionate, engaged younger generation of doctors interested in bringing together a large group of health care providers to take a more active role in this issue,” said Sandberg, a pediatrician and clinical instructor at Stanford.

In the immediate future, plans for SAFE include coordinating with other entities to add firearms safety measures to medical education. Leaders also will gather soon to hammer out details of a long-term agenda.

Winslow and Spitzer know that meeting their goals will be challenging, but they remain hopeful about making progress, even if it is slow to come.

“I really do believe the time is right for this,” Winslow said. “I’m a Midwesterner, so I’m congenitally optimistic about things.”



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