With the Senate Judiciary Committee set to vote Thursday on advancing Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 to the full chamber, The National Memo interviewed Dr. Manan Trivedi, an Iraq war veteran, about the medical perspective on assault weapons from someone who has seen and treated firsthand the devastating human consequences of these lethal weapons.
Dr. Trivedi is a board-certified internal medicine physician and former Navy Lieutenant Commander who was the medical team commander for the first ground troops to cross the line and enter Iraq in 2003. He was twice the Democratic nominee for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district.
Through the progressive Truman National Security Project and Americans United for Change, Dr. Trivedi is advocating for an assault weapons ban by sharing his own experiences as a physician on the front lines of Iraq and South Central Los Angeles.
How did you get involved in wanting to make your views on assault weapons public through the media?
Throughout my career I’ve seen the effects of assault weapons in the military and in the civilian sector. Frankly, I think politically that there are a lot of folks who lack the courage to do anything about it. But if you’ve seen the things that I’ve seen, I don’t think it would be that hard to recognize that we need an assault weapons ban.
How has your experience in military medicine on the front lines of Iraq treating soldiers wounded by military weapons shaped your views on the current debate going on in the United States surrounding assault weapons and high-capacity magazines?
I think it’s shaped my views significantly. It’s one thing to say we need an assault weapons ban because you think it’s wrong or you don’t think they’re appropriate for people to have, but it’s another thing to say it because you’ve seen the devastating effects they can have on humans.
These things are human-killing machines, and I’ve seen it in Iraq. I’ve seen it with soldiers I’ve treated. I’ve seen it with enemies. And I’ve seen it in the civilian sector, too. I was in training for going to Iraq by helping run the trauma service in South Central Los Angeles. I was there for many gunshot victim trauma runs. I also was an EMT before I went to med school. So throughout my career in all stages I’ve seen the effects. And when you see that and try to treat it firsthand, it has a major effect and makes a major imprint on your mind.
Can you explain to readers the types of trauma injuries you treated and witnessed either in the war zones of Iraq or in South Central as a result of these types of weapons? How is it different from injuries caused by a shotgun or handgun?
Assault weapons, particularly, are just devastating. These things, in a spray of bullets, can amputate legs, whereas a gunshot couldn’t do that. The other thing is the munitions, the bullets, are made to kill humans so the entry wound might be really small, but then the exit wound is massive because they are made to mushroom and blow up as soon as they hit bone or flesh. So I’ve seen amputated legs from assault weapons. I’ve seen bodies cut in two or three because of these .50 calibers. That was mostly in Iraq, but I saw it a couple of times in South Central and it’s almost as if they knew what a surgeon would have to do to try to fix this; how to make it impossible. With a knife or a stab wound, you can stitch it up. You can figure out what to put together. But when there’s nothing to put stitches in, no flesh to get a hold of, which is what these assault weapons do, it makes it impossible to try to mend them back together.
What are your views on the assault weapons and high-capacity magazine bans, and why do you think they’re so difficult to pass in the current Congress even though a majority of Americans support them?
I’m on the record as supporting Sen. Feinstein’s assault weapons ban. Sadly it’s very likely dead in the water and it’s a clear lack of courage from members of Congress — from both sides, Republicans and Democrats. I think Sen. Feinstein’s bill might not even get out of committee. And I think it’s really sad. I would say every senator and congressman should run a couple of shifts in the trauma room in South Central, take a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever our next conflict is, and see the effects of these weapons firsthand. I think it might change their minds.
I think Congress needs to show some courage and do the right thing here as opposed to kowtowing to the NRA and other gun lobbying groups. What’s so sad about the bill is that all major organizations outside the NRA—medical societies, police unions, religious groups—all support the assault weapons ban, yet Congress and the NRA are still against it. It’s unfortunate.
Do you have anything to say to the NRA and others who say a ban on assault weapons violates their Second Amendment rights?
I grew up in a pretty rural part of Pennsylvania and most of my buddies were hunters. I respect the sport of hunting. Gun owners, hunters, who teach their children responsible gun ownership… I think it can be a great way for fathers and sons or mothers and daughters to bond. I don’t want to take away anybody’s gun or right to defend themselves, or ability to go hunting.
But the truth is in Pennsylvania you can go hunting with a bow and arrow, you can go hunting with a muzzleloader, you can go hunting with a deer rifle. No one goes hunting with an AK-47. Why are we not just giving nuclear warheads to any civilian, or bazookas, or rocket-propelled grenades? There has to be a line drawn. There’s no hunting use or need for these types of assault weapons.
What about those people who say the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban didn’t work and a new ban won’t reduce gun violence?
Sadly the data [on the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban] is sparse, but the data that we have shows that the ban actually did make a difference. In Virginia, crimes with assault weapons went down significantly. The assault weapons that were seized from crime scenes went down significantly. The sad thing is the reason there isn’t much data is because the NRA lobbied hard for legislation, including in the Affordable Care Act, to not let data be gathered about gun ownership or gun violence. Even physicians at the CDC were banned from looking into gun violence as a public health issue.
How do you break the iron grip that the NRA has on Congress?
Sadly it might take another one or two — maybe even more — Newtowns, or another Aurora, or another Columbine. Unfortunately this is how politics in America works. It’s reactive, not proactive. The other way we can do it is continue to put this at the forefront when we do elect our next leaders. Some people credit Robin Kelly’s victory in Chicago in the special election to replace Jesse Jackson, Jr. with her stance on gun control.
Those of us who support an assault weapons ban need to keep this at the forefront whenever we are evaluating candidates for the future, and continue to press our legislators.
The way Congress has historically acted, it’s going to take more violence and more horrific tragedies for them to finally come to their senses.
What are you doing to try and educate the public about the lethal danger of these military weapons being on the streets of America?
My group, the Truman Group, we aren’t your typical hippy, peacenik folks, and I think that’s a powerful message. A guy who served in Iraq, a former Marine Corps, or Navy Lieutenant Commander, the head of a police force… these are not your typical left-wing Democratic Pelosi types.
You have to push on all fronts. I applaud the president and vice president’s effort to keep this issue at the forefront, which is why I wanted to talk to you and I’m reaching out to anybody who is interested in talking to me. Tell them my story. After Newtown a lot of other physicians who are typically not political have come out and said, “Hey, I had to say something because I see this in the ER every day.” Now that the American people have seen it, there is a reaction. This is what we see in the trauma rooms every day. It might not be 20 children, but it is one at a time. And I think we need atypical, apolitical folks who say this isn’t a political issue, this is about safety — safety for our children, safety for our communities, safety for people who believe in America and believe we should be able to walk down the streets and go to school without fear of gun violence.
We need to keep the pressure up. We can’t let this fade away. I think that’s the key. And not give up. If Feinstein’s bill doesn’t pass this time, keep it at the forefront. Make sure it is a test of candidates in the future. Where do you stand on this? Make it known that it’s a significant decision-making point, whether you choose to vote for that candidate or not.
Anything else you would like to add?
I’ve shot guns, I’ve shot .50 cals, I have friends who are hunters. I have ultimate respect for gun owners. But 75 to 80 percent of gun owners support an assault weapons ban. This is not about anybody trying to take away your right to defend yourself. Ronald Reagan supported an assault weapons ban. This is about safety for our children and our communities and saying enough is enough. No one needs these types of killing machines, these types of military-style weapons on the streets of our cities and in our schools. This is a common sense bill.