When Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana was shot, along with three others, while practicing for a congressional charity baseball game, the press and the pundits found themselves facing a dilemma. Much praise was given to the two capital police officers — both agents assigned as part of the congressman’s security detail — who courageously stepped forward and returned fire, killing the shooter and saving countless lives.
The dilemma that confronted the news outlets was whether to report only the details of the attack, focusing on the condition of Scalise and the other victims while avoiding the issue of gun control. Hence the weapon, an SKS semi-automatic, was never mentioned. Instead, the words “thoughts and prayers” became oft repeated as all sincerely hoped for the best outcomes for those wounded by this senseless act.
Nevertheless, the reality was that an unhinged individual — and it is impossible to offer a definitive clinical explanation or motivation — was able to get access to a weapon of war, one designed specifically to do maximum damage to the human body.
In a recent article in the New York Times by emergency physician Leana S. Wen, titled “The Damage a Bullet Can Do,” Wen describes in graphic detail the devastation inflicted by just one high velocity bullet.
It is not atypical that a gunshot wound such as that sustained by Scalise in the hip, may appear somewhat bloody but doesn’t seem life threatening. The hip, in the case of the congressman, is a long way from any life sustaining organs. And there is something almost Hollywoodesque about such a benign and hopeful assessment, most of us relying on gunshot wounds as portrayed in film.
As Wen explains, “I’ve learned that it is not the bullet that kills you, but the path the bullet takes. If the bullet is non-expanding, it may travel a straight line and damages tissue and organs in its path.” However, Wen points out, if the bullet is expanding, especially if shot from an assault weapon, which can discharge bullets much faster than a handgun, “as it enters the body, the bullet fragments and explodes, pulverizing bones, tearing blood vessels and liquefying organs.”
She describes one gunshot victim where the bullet had “disintegrated his spleen and torn his aorta. Four ribs had essentially turned to dust.” Her patient died on the table. He was 15.
Wen goes on to describe a victim shot by a weapon similar to the one used to shoot Scalise and the other three. “The bullet shattered the hipbone into hundreds of pieces. It shredded the femoral artery, causing life-threatening bleeding, and destroyed wide portions of the bowel and bladder.” This is the kind of damage inflicted on the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and other mass shootings including Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a mentally ravished man shot 21 first-graders and six adults using a semi-automatic Bushmaster XM15-E2S.
Try to imagine the damage done by the high-velocity bullets hitting those small bodies. Actually, we don’t want to know what the first responders found when they entered Sandy Hook on that bleak morning.
I recall President Obama wiping tears from his eyes as he tried to comfort the parents and families of those killed, the consuming grief overwhelming. As eloquent and heartfelt as his words were, he implicitly and later explicitly wondered why, as a nation, we would allow such weapons to be freely bought and sold.
As Wen points out, if the victims survive, as did the congressman and the others, the outcomes can be tragic: paralysis, infections, surgeries, amputations, colostomy bags, a lifetime of health issues and repeated hospitalizations.
I suggest that gun control was never mentioned or debated in the context of this recent mass shooting because of a truth that still haunts us: If Sandy Hook could not change our gun policies, if Congress reacted with only silence, then what more can be said?
And so those who are disturbed beyond understanding will continue to kill the innocent with weapons of mass destruction and the litany of places and names will continue.
— Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.