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Northwell CEO on gun violence: 'We are better than this'

Northwell Health president and CEO Michael J. Dowling,

Northwell Health president and CEO Michael J. Dowling, seen on April 4, called gun violence in the United States "a health care epidemic." Credit: Howard Schnapp

Michael J. Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, has been outspoken about gun violence in the United States and is pushing for stricter gun regulations. In a wide-ranging interview this month, he discussed the issue with Newsday reporter David Reich-Hale.

Why are you so outspoken about gun violence?

To me this is a public health issue. We have to remind ourselves that when it comes to gun violence there are more than 100 deaths per day, about 40,000 a year. It’s the third-largest reason for death among children ages 1 to 17. Then you have all of the human suffering that is attached to it. All of the pain, all of the psychological issues that result from violence. And it’s not just the large major mass shootings. It is the ongoing shootings that happen on an ongoing basis resulting from guns. And when you’re in a hospital setting, you see the result, you have people coming in injured all the time, I think something like 1,600 people a week come to trauma centers and hospitals across the country suffering trauma and serious injury as a result of gun violence. So the statistics are extraordinary … the stats are only part of it, it’s the human suffering … so why isn’t this a major issue that is looked upon as a public health crisis?

What's going through your mind when you see reports from mass shootings?

I’m distraught when I see this. Especially when you’re dealing with a situation where it’s children who are on the receiving end. Your first reaction is this is crazy. This is not what the United States should be allowing, this is not what this country is about. We are a much better society than this. You should not be going to school in danger that someday some person would come in with an instrument of war. Put yourself in a situation where you’re a parent, or sibling or family members of people that are gunned down in total innocence. I am the beneficiary of coming here as an immigrant, and being able to be where I am today. America is a place where there is a level of civility, a sense of community, where people take care of each other. We are a lot better than this. America is the shining light amongst civilized societies, and we therefore have to maintain that standard. And if we want to maintain that standard, we need to curtail the damage done by guns and gun violence.

What do you think needs to be done?

I think there definitely needs to be universal background checks that make it much more difficult for people to get access to guns. It’s just like if you want to drive a car, you have to go get a license, you have to go take a test. I do believe very firmly that there should be a ban like there was for 10 years  [beginning] in 1994 on assault weapons. You don’t need weapons of war hanging around the streets in our country. We figured out how to go to the moon, so don’t tell me you can’t figure out how to develop a background check that protects the privacy of people where privacy protection is needed. Leadership is about finding that common element, find compromise, finding that middle ground.

What do you think of how the federal government and President Donald Trump have handled gun control?

One day they’re for it, the next they’re against it … total lack of courage, and courage is an inherent ingredient in leadership. I don’t think we know what President Trump is going to do and I’m not certain we know … from one minute to the next. He says that he wants to take action on this, and I hope he does. I hope he has the courage to do so, despite the fact there will be a constituency that disagrees.  

How big is the mental health component of mass shootings? 

What you don’t want to do is jump to the automatic conclusion that this is all about mental health. It is not. From the best evidence, there is probably 5 or 6 percent of people that have been diagnosed as mentally ill that cause disasters. Most gun violence is not caused by people who have been diagnosed as mentally ill. It’s a small percentage of people. 

Do you expect pushback for being outspoken about this? 

I am not concerned with pushback at all. Leadership bears with it a responsibility because when you have these positions at an organization like Northwell … we do have a responsibility and obligation that comes with the role that we play here, comes with the leadership that we have, and the influence that we have, and we should be using that influence and leadership for the public good, which is what the mission of our organization is anyway.

I welcome that pushback. I’d like to see who would like to stand up and say this is not a public health issue, or this is not something we should be concerned about. People are dying and suffering, families are under extraordinary pain and distress because of shootings, and that’s OK? Bring them on.

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