Autopsy of a Gunshot Victim


After my nephew Christopher was shot and murdered in a home invasion, I mourned the loss of his young and precious life and committed myself to doing everything in my power to make sure that these tragedies would be halted.

Yet, I must acknowledge that two years after Christopher’s death, my passion was beginning to weaken. To my dismay, I realized that the horror and loss that my family had experienced was starting to become an intellectualized abstraction.

I continued to do my job, pushing legislation to make gun trafficking a federal crime and to substantially increase the penalties for straw purchasers. Yet, something in my heart told me that this action was not enough.

I have come to realize that we cannot come to terms with the slaughter that is occurring every day and night in our communities if we continue to confront the political challenges to limiting gun violence as an abstraction.

That is why I undertook what, for me, was an unusual step. In order to rekindle my passion to stem the violence in our society, I decided that I should personally observe an autopsy of a gunshot victim in our community.

So, I contacted the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office and asked if I could attend such an autopsy. Dr. David Fowler, the state’s chief medical examiner, agreed and said he would call me when a gun victim's autopsy would be performed.

Finally, on Good Friday, he called to invite me to the 9 a.m. autopsy of a 21-year-old African American male.

The young man, whom I will call “John,” had been found the night before at around 7 p.m. sitting in the driver's seat of his late model car. He was 6 feet, 5 inches tall, clean-cut, nicely dressed, well-built and had no recent scars.

The night before, John had had a promising future. Then, in an instant, he had been shot with a hand gun, the single bullet entering his neck just below the right ear and exiting about an inch behind the left eye.

After examining John and taking samples of his vital organs, the medical examiner confirmed the cause of John’s death: gunshot wound to his head.

That analysis was the truth, and it will be reflected in the casualty statistics. His name had joined that of my nephew, Christopher, on the wailing wall of our grieving nation.

Yet, as I forced myself to look at John’s bloodied and dissected corpse, I could not stop thinking that the medical examiner’s expert and accurate analysis was not the whole truth about John, his devastated family and the community in which we live.

John’s life deserves some far more lasting memorial than a brief notation on the medical examiner’s certificate. Christopher Cummings’ life and those of all the tens of thousands of other gunshot victims deserve far more.

We owe these victims and their families a renewed national commitment to do everything possible to end this gun violence.

It is partially true, as the National Rifle Association often contends, that “people are killing people.” Yet, we all know that this is not the whole truth.

People with easy access to guns are killing people.

Criminals, who have forfeited any right to possess weapons of personal destruction, are using others (“straw purchasers”) to acquire these killing machines. We must put an end to that.

We cannot allow ourselves to become convinced that our national debate about reasonable gun restrictions is a hopeless cause.

I remain hopeful that our bipartisan legislation [H.R. 2554] to stem gun trafficking to criminals and their organizations will become law.

We must speak out so that we can shield others from relentless pain. We do not have the right to remain silent

Congressman Elijah Cummings (D) represents Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Autopsy of a Gunshot Victim

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