All health care executives can attest to the fact that leadership is never easy. We are routinely put in difficult positions where any decision we make opens us up to criticism, both inside and outside the organization. Such is the case with the gun legislation debate that's raging in Washington and throughout the country.
Obviously, there are intense feelings on both sides of the issue, with Second Amendment advocates and the NRA resisting efforts to strengthen gun laws, and others expressing outrage over the lack of Congressional action.
With approximately 40,000 firearms-related deaths occurring annually in the US, up from about 29,000 20 years ago, gun violence is clearly a public health crisis that we've ignored for far too long. As health care providers, we have an obligation to preserve and protect life. We have a rich and proud history of responding aggressively and successfully to past public health crises, whether they be flu epidemics, AIDS/HIV or other infectious diseases that threaten human life. But the death of 31 people earlier this month in El Paso and Dayton, and the recent arrests of others who police say were plotting additional attacks, underscore the pervasiveness of the problem and serve as another reminder of our failure to raise our collective voices to say, "Enough is enough."
In speaking to my peers across the country, I know many are apprehensive about taking a firm stand on this issue, particularly in this politically toxic environment. Some are concerned about offending their board members, donors, elected officials and other constituents, including patients.
I'm not oblivious to those considerations, but leadership doesn't hide. True leadership means having the personal courage to speak out and take the heat, particularly on issues that are affecting the health and wellness of our communities. If there was a disease that was killing as many people as guns in this country, we would be mobilizing a national response effort. It's inexcusable for us to remain silent.
True leadership is found in bridging the gap and forging a path that others follow. It is thoughtful, responsible, unifying, positive and, when necessary, unyielding. In this case, it's understanding that you can support the Second Amendment — and still have sensible gun laws to provide for public safety, including universal background checks on buyers.
While it's important that we don't demonize or stigmatize the mentally ill, we need to increase behavioral health funding, treatment and support, while also raising awareness of other risk factors. We should all be supportive of "red flag" laws that allow police, district attorneys, family members and school administrators to petition the courts if they have reason to believe a gun owner is a threat to themselves or others.
Despite what some politicians and pundits would like you to believe, the majority of Americans actually support this type of common sense legislation. Before the shootings in Ohio and Texas, a survey conducted by APM Research Lab/Guns & America/Call To Mind found that 77 percent of Americans support family-initiated red flag laws and 70 percent support them when initiated by law enforcement.
As of this writing, 62 people have been killed in mass shootings so far this year. Sadly, it's not a question of "if" but "when" the next mass shooting occurs. In the meantime, we have a responsibility to keep gun safety at the forefront of public discourse. We need to talk about it today, tomorrow and the next day while mobilizing our employees to drive change.
Michael Dowling is president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health care provider and employer.
This op-ed appeared in Becker's Hospital Review.