Trauma surgeon studies gun violence stats — and was one

Personal experience drives Joseph Sakran to try to affect U.S. policy on firearms

hands holding a gun

GUN WOUND BURDEN  A new study estimates there were roughly 25 visits to the emergency department for gun-related injuries per 100,000 people from 2006 to 2014.


Joseph Sakran knows more about the horrific impact of firearm-related injuries than the average trauma surgeon. A bullet nearly killed him 23 years ago. He was 17. At his high school’s season-opening football game, a fight broke out and someone fired into the crowd.

“A .38-caliber bullet ripped through my throat and ended up in my shoulder,” he says. He had multiple surgeries and spent six months with a breathing tube in his windpipe. His recovery kept him home for most of his senior year. He still has a paralyzed vocal cord, which leaves his voice raspy at times.

The experience inspired Sakran to become a surgeon, and it compelled him to work at the intersection of medicine, public health and public policy. His goal: “to reduce gun violence in our communities across this country.”

Trauma surgeon Joseph Sakran
PATIENT TO DOCTOR Trauma surgeon Joseph Sakran survived a gunshot wound as a teenager. He now treats gunshot victims and studies firearm-related injuries. Johns Hopkins Medicine
One way to do that is with data. Sakran and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine looked at data from more than 900 U.S. hospitals from 2006 to 2014 and estimated that, nationwide, almost 705,000 people landed in an emergency department with a gun-related injury. Nearly half of victims were shot in an assault, 35 percent were shot unintentionally and 5 percent had attempted suicide. Gun-related ER visits and hospital stays cost about $2.8 billion annually , the researchers estimate in the October Health Affairs.

Such evidence is needed to tailor interventions “that will help minimize this public health crisis that we’re facing,” Sakran says, and he’d like to see a lot more research on the causes and costs of gun violence. One roadblock is Congress, which has severely limited federal funding to study gun violence (SN: 5/14/16, p. 16). “Why wouldn’t we want to know what the truth is and what the data show?” he asks. “Let’s look at it, let’s study it, let’s figure out where we can make improvements. Everyone should want that.”

When he was shot, Sakran says he felt numb. “Everything felt like it was going in slow motion.” Now director of emergency general surgery, he operates on people who come into the ER with gunshot wounds. “The moment that is most difficult for me is when I have to go out to the waiting room and talk to families,” Sakran says. “I sometimes think of my own parents and what they must have been going through when the trauma surgeon came out to talk to them.” 

Gun injury causes

U.S. firearm-related injuries, estimated from 2006 to 2014, were mainly due to assaults or accidents. For all categories but suicide, young adults ages 18 to 29 bear the brunt of the injuries. Suicide attempts using guns affect adults of all ages almost equally.

Click and tap the pie chart below to explore the data. 

H. Thompson and E. Otwell

Editor’s note: This story was updated on November 1, 2017, to correct errors in the interactive graphic. In the age groups other than “All ages,” the raw numbers were correct but the percentages were not. This has been corrected.

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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