The Public Voice

What does it mean to speak publicly about issues you care about?

If you tweet a link to an article you finding interesting, is that an implicit endorsement?

If I “like” your status update or change my profile picture to a red equal sign, am I a better friend or advocate?

What is the “like” currency and how is it contributing to the economy of change in our society?

Are we all a part of a movement or is the world just getting smaller and we’ve found a new place to put our trash?

What is happening to all the information we’re putting into social spaces? If twitter feeds are a library cataloging everything from congressional politics to scientific theory, is it sacrilege to post what you ate for breakfast? As curators in the age of information, what is our responsibility as architects of truth and reason? Where is the reasonable-check to make sure what we are creating is useful or even mildly entertaining? Are we becoming garbage disposals of recycled ideas, rapid consumers of information that won’t penetrate beyond the limits of the screens we view it on, only to forward the undigested remains along to our “friends”?

How does one go about changing the world anyway? Do you have to own what you feel in a forum of public opinion to be a genuine advocate? Do I have to bleed alongside my comrades in war-torn countries to be a kindred ally, or can I just re-tweet the rally cry? Is it safer to express controversial opinions online or more cowardly? By sharing our intimate thoughts and passions, are we building collective memories or creating new generations of voyeurs? Can social media really bring about social justice?

Should physicians speak publicly about the ways education, housing, environment, and local politics affects their patient’s health? If they do, will it matter?

Social media is the new land of opportunity, democratizing information and offering the promise of connection and synergy – where our collective vision for the future can transcend our individual ability to make it realized. But I am beginning to understand that my words here (in the internet cosmos) mean nothing if I don’t live them here (where I actually live and work and play). Perhaps if we hold ourselves to that standard of engagement as we share our worlds online, the weight of our words really will change the world. As it turns out, the public voice is nothing without public action.

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Guns and Better

Someone died.

4 houses from where I lay my head. 4 houses into my route to work. 2 houses from where I park my car. 6 blocks from a hospital, 4 blocks from a park, and 1 block from a tree-lined street, full of the locally owned peculiarities that make San Francisco special.

Yellow tape draped around the trees, the gloved hands of the authorities, and 3 red flares with tiny tendrils of smoke, were all that marked a tragedy.

It was Saturday morning and there was blood on the sidewalk. Someone died and only the sky seemed to mourn, gray and silent.

He was 19. Home from college. Shot on the street and dead.

In the wake of the tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary, it seemed America had finally lost its taste for the spoils of gunfire. Despite what gun lobbyists would have us believe, animals aren’t the only victims of loaded weapons. Guns kill kids. And while the events at Sandy Hook were horrific, only 1-2% of youth homicides occur at school.

The truth is, kids are dying in our neighborhoods.

And just when we finally seemed ready to have a responsible discussion about rights in this country, namely the right to protect ourselves from the tyranny of guns, we wait. We wait for our federal legislature to grasp that the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment can never be placed above the sanctity of precious American lives.

What gives? What other lethal weapons are so protected in this country? Cars require registration and training to operate. Unsafe chemicals require warnings (and if they are particularly toxic their manufacture, distribution, and use are regulated by the government). Cigarettes cannot be sold to minors, are heavily taxed, and many states now prohibit their use in public spaces. New York even considered banning soda because it may kill someone in the future, from complications of diabetes and heart disease (which have been linked to high sugar intake).

In America, it seems, we have no problem placing limits on things we deem a threat to public safety and public health. And yet, we wait on expansive federal gun control. And more importantly, while we wait, recent polls show our collective conscience is losing sight of the urgency of the issue.

Homicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24; and if you happen to be an African-American male, it is the number ONE cause of death. In 2010, 13 kids a day were victims of homicide and more than 80% of them were killed by a firearm. And in the 3 and 1/2 months since Sandy Hook, more than 2,200 lives have been lost to gun violence (that is akin to a Newtown every single day since the mass shooting).

The data is clear. People are dying and we have a system that protects gun ownership at the expense of our lives.

It is time for something better.

As a pediatrician and children’s health advocate, I stand with President Barack Obama and the American Academy of Pediatrics in demanding better from my federal government.

  • Reinstate and expand the 1994 assault weapon ban and limit high-capacity ammunition magazines (thanks Sen. Dianne Feinstein!).
  • Require criminal background checks for gun sales, including those by private sellers that are currently exempt (thanks Gov. Dannel Malloy, and Gov. John Hickenlooper!).
  • End the national research blackout on gun violence and enable scientific data to inform future policy.
  • Expand access to mental health services and treatment to individuals in need.
  • Invest in communities with high rates of violence to undermine the economy of crime.

Congress, people are dying and we must take notice. I pray the issue doesn’t have to come to your neighborhood, 4 houses down from where you rest, to get your attention. The time for better is now.