Politics

Why Words Aren’t Enough to Convey the Brutality of Gun Violence

A woman crouches next to a young girl as they look at a memorial of flowers, stuffed animals, angels, candles, and photographs of the victims.
A woman and child visit a memorial dedicated to the 19 children and two adults killed during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Last week on Capitol Hill, there was a five-hour hearing about gun violence. Parents of kids who died in the Uvalde school shooting testified. So did the president of the National Education Association. But the part of this hearing that I couldn’t shake was testimony from a woman named Zeneta Everhart.

She was there to talk about her son, Zaire. Zaire was injured in the Tops grocery store shooting in Buffalo. His mother was calm, and persistent, and extremely vivid.

Advertisement

To the lawmakers who feel that we do not need stricter gun laws, let me paint a picture for you: My son, Zaire, has a hole in the right side of his neck, two on his back, and another on his left leg, caused by an exploding bullet from an AR-15. As I clean his wounds, I can feel pieces of that bullet in his back. Shrapnel will be left inside of his body for the rest of his life. Now, I want you to picture that exact scenario for one of your children. This should not be your story or mine.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

She practically dared these lawmakers to feel her pain.

If hearing from me and the other people testifying here today does not move you to act on gun laws I invite you to my home to help me clean Zaire’s wounds so you may see up close the damage that has been done to my son and my community. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

I wondered if this kind of candor could work. So I called up someone intimately familiar with gun violence and the political fight against it. Here name is Dr. Amy Goldberg. Goldberg is a trauma surgeon. She knows what it means to clean wounds like Zaire’s. These wounds are so brutal that she almost hesitates to describe them. “These wounds destroy,” she said. “They make holes in the patients. They make large holes and remove parts of their bodies. It is horrific.”

Now, Goldberg has started to publicly wonder: If the rest of us could see what she sees—look at photos of the wounds she struggles to describe—would we think about gun control differently? More urgently? She hears about testimony like Zeneta Everhart’s, and she thinks: Words aren’t enough. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Goldberg, a trauma surgeon who is sick of telling you about gun violence. She wants you to see it. For her, it’s a last-ditch effort. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: How many shooting victims does your hospital see in an average week?

Amy Goldberg: Maybe on average, my God, it could certainly be 20,

20?

Yeah, at least two or three every day, unfortunately.

In 2019, a medical student working at Temple started photographing what he saw at work when gunshot victims were wheeled in. And he had a few of his photos published in the New York Times. His photos were stark because no people were in them. It was simply the trauma bay. And it looks like a horror movie. There’s blood everywhere, signs of how quickly people have worked—discarded gloves on the floor.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I wondered if you worked with him. And if you talked to him about documenting scenes like he did.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I did work with him. He explained to me why he thought it was important to do that. I told him I wasn’t so sure it would make a difference.

What did he say when you told him that?

I think maybe he thought that it would. Unfortunately, we are in different stages of our careers. I’m 30 years into a career, and he is at the beginning part of a career, and I’m not surprised that he thought it would make a difference. I have just witnessed the tragedies that have occurred across this country and have seen no change. Other people have shown pictures like that. Other people have told their stories, and nothing seems to have made an impact.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s funny to me to hear you say this because you have spoken in recent weeks about how you do want people to see what you see as a doctor.

Oh, I don’t want them to see a bloody trauma bay. I want them to see a patient. I don’t think that you can deny that this is occurring. I don’t think that you can deny that these guns cause these wounds if you are seeing it. If you are seeing it on citizens of this country, you can’t deny it.

Is there one victim in particular that you can’t get out of your head?

I guess it would be a patient that I took care of a number of years ago, who was shot with this type of military-style weapon. But all of the patients that are in our trauma bays really deserve to be seen and deserve to be heard and deserve for there to be some change in how easy access there is to guns, or addressing of the structural and systemic racism in the inner cities.

Advertisement
Advertisement

What is it about that patient you saw a few years back that you think would be powerful?

Advertisement

I think it is the sheer destruction.

Can you tell me more about that?

The large holes that are left in the abdominal wall of the patient, the fact that the organs come out these large holes because the wounds are so big.

Were the organs literally on the outside of the body?

Yes.

What you’re talking about is the dignity of your patients and the respect they deserve as human beings. What you’re saying about seeing these wounds, a number of people have brought this idea up in the last couple of weeks. People have compared seeing wounds like this to Emmett Till’s open casket or pictures from Vietnam of that little girl who’d been burned by napalm. And some people have talked about their discomfort with the fact that families of victims, if images like this became public, could be victimized again by seeing their family’s bodies destroyed.

Advertisement

And I wonder whether you’ve spoken to families about this and how they’ve talk to you about their family members and what they might be willing to show others.

I have not had a conversation with a family member to show a picture, and I would never want to retraumatize anybody. You can only imagine what they’ve been through. I would never show a picture without permission, of course. And I wouldn’t show a picture that would be identifiable.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I don’t think that people have to see who this is. I just think that our country, our politicians, our citizens need to see what these guns are doing. That’s the only reason. I just don’t understand. It shouldn’t take this. Wouldn’t you have thought after Sandy Hook that there would have been some commonsense gun laws?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But now, 10 years later, more elementary school kids. So as I’ve been doing this job for 30 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I guess it’s going to take a picture. I guess that’s what it will take. That’s what Emmett Till’s mother thought that it would take. The pictures from Vietnam, as you said. The person who videotaped George Floyd’s murder. These images have changed our history. And I don’t want us to wait anymore.

You sound desperate.

I am desperate. And so are many other people.

I think the idea of seeing grisly photos like this may strike some people as a simplistic approach. I know that’s not actually what you’re thinking of here, because you’ve done so much in your role at Temple to try to curb community violence. You’ve pioneered a bunch of programs: teaching people gunshot wound first aid, giving out gun locks. Can you tell me a little bit about how you started doing this kind of work, which is not traditional trauma surgeon work?

Advertisement
Advertisement

It started when I first became a trauma surgeon, and it occurred to me that doing the operations and putting the bandages on and changing the dressings, that wasn’t enough.

Because it was too late?

Yes, it was too late. We needed to prevent this. We needed to educate people on what bullets do to bodies. We need to give out gun locks. We need to support our families after patients are shot. It just seemed that the surgery, which I had been trained to do, was truly no longer adequate to really providing care—full 360-degree care.

One of the most innovative things that you’ve done at Temple is your program where you offer gunshot victims a chance to see their trauma room treatment on video. What do you hope they get from that kind of experience?

Advertisement
Advertisement

If patients didn’t want to see it, then, of course, we would not show it to them. But the reason why we did that was we wanted our patients to see how many people were in the trauma bay helping them, supporting them. It’s really providing an education on what these gunshot wounds do.

I remember after the Uvalde shootings, the New York Times had the pictures of all of the children. And it was gut-wrenching, but it was all of them, all totally sanitized. Pictures that people could have pulled down off of Facebook. And that’s not the reality. And I think as a trauma surgeon and as a hospital that serves our community, it’s important to educate people and let them know that what they might see on TV, in a video game, in a movie is not what we see at all.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Who do you think the people are that need to see these photos? Because I feel like most Americans are horrified by the mass shootings we’ve seen. And there’s good research that most Americans want “commonsense” gun laws. Have you ever thought about taking pictures to Washington?

I’d be more than happy to take pictures to Washington.

Do you think it’d make a difference?

I would think it would make a difference. I think the politicians can’t imagine what these guns do. I don’t think that as a society we want to see these injuries. We want to believe that that doesn’t really happen. So I think for sure the politicians would be the first start. And I think the country needs to see the pictures too.

It’s funny, I thought going into this conversation that I’d perceived a change in you because you’d said in previous interviews how hopeless you thought things were in terms of moving the needle on gun violence and gun legislation. And I had this feeling that part of the reason you were speaking out so much was because you thought maybe that had changed, that things could change. But it seems to be more like you think both things are true: that it’s very unlikely things will change, but that if there’s one narrow pathway showing these photos might be it.

We have a moment now as a country to make a difference. I think we can make real change now. And we cannot lose this opportunity. We cannot. We deserve better.

Advertisement