College hosts physician panel on local organization’s new public health approach to gun violence prevention

Dr. Christopher Barsotti spoke about AFFIRM, a new physician-run organization aiming to tackle the issue of gun violence from a public health perspective. Photo courtesy of Professor Leyla Rouhi.

On Tuesday, Feb. 6, the College hosted a panel on gun violence prevention. The panel featured Brown emergency care physician Megan Ranney, University of Nevada, Las Vegas trauma surgeon Deborah Kuhls and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center emergency physician Christopher E. Barsotti. The three doctors have all taken part in founding the organization AFFIRM, or the American Foundation for Firearm Injury Reduction in Medicine.

Barsotti, who serves as AFFIRM’s executive director, was inspired to help form the organization based on his experience as an emergency physician in the Berkshire area. “I’ve taken care of a number of cases where there have been near misses with firearms, and I’ve also seen missed opportunities,” Barsotti said. When it comes to gun violence, he noted that many people think “that stuff doesn’t happen here.” “They have no idea,” he said of that fallacy. Beyond the mass shootings normally associated with gun violence, Barsotti explained, most of the patients he treats are victims of domestic violence, peer violence or suicide.

Although AFFIRM is based in Williamstown, it has a geographically diverse steering committee and national goals. “The way that gun violence has been perceived in this country has been largely political, and as physicians, we recognize that this is primarily a health problem and hope to direct the public’s attention to the many opportunities that lie upstream of policy,” Barsotti said. That is why AFFIRM is nonpartisan. The physician-managed organization aims to shift the conversation on gun violence prevention by approaching it as a public health issue rather than as a political debate.

Normally, the government tackles public health issues, such as the opioid crisis, by commissioning the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to decide priorities and give research grants. However, CDC research on gun violence is not allowed due to the Dickey Amendment, which arose from a 1996 omnibus spending bill. “It is abundantly clear that the government has not decided to fund public health research on this topic,” Barsotti said.

This is where AFFIRM comes in. “The problem is we don’t have an organized approach to this condition like we do other health problems,” Barsotti explained. “The primary problem is we don’t have enough research.” AFFIRM seeks to fill this gap by aggregating funds to support gun violence research. The organization will act as a “conduit between the experts and the private sector,” Barsotti said.

The panel raised awareness of the new locally-based organization and introduced the College community to its different approach to the issue of gun violence. “The purpose of the panel was to begin to define the problem in a way that is accessible to everybody,” Barsotti said.

Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature Leyla Rouhi organized the panel with the hopes of engaging the student body with this new approach to the issue of gun violence. She learned of AFFIRM through conversations with Barsotti, who is her neighbor. “I became very interested in bringing it to the attention of public health and experiential education at Williams,” she explained.

Rouhi is both a romance languages professor and a member of the College’s public health advisory committee. Although these two fields may seem very different, Rouhi is particularly interested in the crossover between them. “I am looking ahead to the ways in which we can learn from one another across disciplines,” she said. She also highlighted the role that foreign languages play in the field of public health. “It is important to think about the different communities affected by public health issues,” she said.

As AFFIRM grows, the organization could provide an opportunity for pre-med and public health-minded students to get involved in the issue. This was part of Rouhi’s motivation for hosting the panel. “I’m sure this generation thinks about this problem, and our students are great problem solvers,” she said. She hopes to help get the College community involved in new ways of thinking about gun violence. Barsotti is also looking forward to “engaging the next generation into a more functional way of thinking about the problem,” he said, especially in the coming months and years as AFFIRM continues to grow.

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