The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

December 20, 2012

DR. MATT MASIELLO | Horror, and hope, from Newtown tragedy


JOHNSTOWN — As we have endured observing the tragic scenes depicting our fellow parents and citizens of Newtown, Conn., in a state of shock and grief, it is impossible not to share that same overwhelming grief and sorrow. A sense of hopelessness and despair is co-mingled with those very heartwrenching feelings.

What can we do to protect our children? Is any place safe? For those who have discussed and debated this issue of firearms and death, we have always made reference to the hundreds of children, classrooms of children, killed each year as victims of firearms-related incidents.

In this festive and holy season, one entire class of our youngest children fell victim once again to the silence of firearm deaths in America.

It is not just a political issue. Until this past week, from the president to our local politicians, there has been silence on the tragedy of firearm-related violence in America. Only in part is it a gun issue. Certainly it is a public health issue.

When we have faced these public health crises over the decades and centuries, we have learned to strategically and deliberately address them when one person or persons no longer remained silent on the issue.

Further success was realized when coalitions of legislators, public health professionals, health-care leaders, businesses and we as citizens developed a multilayered approach to better health and safer lives. It is time for that now.

We can no longer depend on our politicians to do it alone or to think that organizations such as the National Rifle Association will step forward to do the right thing, to do the right thing for our children.

The issue of gun violence is multifactorial. Violence is embedded into our culture, our homes, our streets and our games. Bullying, child abuse, corporal punishment and guns terrorize thousands of our children every day.

Parents, teachers, pediatricians, mental health workers, social workers and school guidance counselors must speak out on the issue. We need to begin the discussion at the grassroots level.

And the organizations representing these professionals must now, more than ever, provide unwavering support to educators, lawyers and clinical and public-health professionals who are willing to speak out and stand firm on what it takes to protect our children from violence.

Communities must approach their hospitals and health centers and begin the dialogue on what additional and strategic health-care resources these institutions can provide to the communities they serve. Mental health clinicians and community health coaches should be at the top of that list.

Violence and mental health disease is at staggering proportions in this country, and we continue to ignore the deadly significance of it all.

Time and time again, this violence is associated with deep, acute, lingering, unrecognized mental health issues of the perpetrator. It will take a generation  of health-care reform to adequately address this issue, but we need a deliberate response now from our legislators and health-care leaders.

The conversation can start right now in our physician offices, college campuses and homes. The single physician  or school counselor can advise a parent, patient or student that if a loved one is suffering from any form of mental illness, that person should not be in close proximity to firearms, regardless or how well they are locked or where the ammunition is stored.

Remove the weapons from that home immediately.

Our local police departments, as was done in Pittsburgh over a decade ago and continues in some cities today, must be willing to take these firearms and ammunition from citizens who no longer want them, no questions asked, and be active in making known that community service.

An appropriately trained adult having a concealed weapon on his or her person may or may not deter or prevent such massacres. Conversely though, the random, freewheeling availability of firearms and the lack of deliberate and meaningful laws to guide the use of them must come to an end.

Firearms manufacturers and dealers can play a decisive and meaningful role in how their firearms are sold. The rogue dealership of guns must end. Gun shows must be regulated or eliminated altogether.

When a local politician states that he or she is pro gun, what does that mean? Does he or she support the sale of automatic or assault weapons and armor-piercing ammunition to citizens? Does he or she not want all existing and new gun owners to go through the same review that a police officer needs to go through? Does he or she endorse physicians telling patients not to own a gun or have a gun in the home if there is mental illness in the family? We all can ask those questions of our state and federal legislators.

There is much we can do as we move through this incredible grief. We can no longer be silent. We all must speak out.

Though today it may not seem we can honestly tell our children they will always be safe in their schools and playgrounds, we can at least tell them we are trying every day to make them safer. We must provide that hope.  

Dr. Matt Masiello is director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Windber Research Institute.


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