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Peter Rhee

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One Gun in the Wrong Hands, Six Innocent Lives Lost

Posted: 03/28/11 05:43 PM ET

On the morning of January 8, I didn't expect anything out of the ordinary.

During my 24 years as a trauma surgeon in the U.S. Navy, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, I treated many soldiers who were torn apart as a result of battlefield injuries.

In addition to my service overseas, I have worked in many trauma centers here in the U.S. Most recently, I trained other surgeons at the Navy Trauma Training Center at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Every day, we would treat so many people with gunshot wounds. Gang warfare, crimes of passion, way too many innocent bystanders, and law enforcement personnel. So many people are shot in the United States that we bring in Navy medical staff to train in the trauma centers so they can get used to treating gunshot wounds before going to war.

After my service in the Navy, when I came back to Tucson to become Chief of Trauma at University Medical Center, I didn't expect to see much that would remind me of the combat zone. Tucson is a peaceful place, not somewhere you expect to see many gunshot wounds. But in reality we see it every day, and especially on January 8, the feeling of being in a combat zone flooded back.

All at once, we were treating eleven patients with gunshot wounds. Despite the best efforts of everyone, six innocent people died that day at the scene and no treatment could have saved those innocent people as they were killed instantly. I am proud of the work by everyone, which helped keep that number from climbing. The outcome could have been worse. But unfortunately, we need to treat people who are shot all the time, all over the United States. When I go to Europe to lecture they often ask me to speak on how to treat patients that were shot. This is because they don't have gunshot wounds in Europe, because they don't have anywhere near our level of gun violence. In Japan and Korea, they have practically no gunshot wounds at all. One fact is true, and undeniable. Where you have guns you will need well-trained trauma surgeons.

My hope is that the January 8 tragedy will teach us a lesson, so we can make sense of that ridiculous day, and so we will do everything we can to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.

So, today I am joining other Arizonans, including several people wounded on January 8, and officials like Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini to support a new plan to fix gun background checks.

For a doctor, an ounce of prevention is always worth more than any cure. Enforcing our laws and screening for unstable people like Jared Loughner, the accused killer, would surely help. I can't see how anyone would argue against that. Innocent people die from gunshot wounds all the time, right here in our country. We have to work to decrease that, don't we?

The plan I am supporting is, in my view, common sense. And it respects the constitutional rights we all share.

It is possible to have a better system that could have stopped people like Loughner, and I would like to be a part of helping to make that a reality.

Fixing these simple gaps in the law could mean the difference between a warzone and just another beautiful, peaceful day -- both here in Tucson and in cities across America.