Should Physicians Advocate for More Gun Control? Of Course They Should

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A remarkable article on gun safety advocacy by physicians has recently been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  Written by three public health specialists, it calls for physicians and other health care professionals to be more aggressive in advocating measures to cut gun violence.  What’s remarkable about the article is not what it says, but the fact that it has been published at all.  Because despite the overwhelming evidence that the existence of several hundred million guns is coincident with the highest levels of gun violence of any advanced country, physicians of late have been reluctant to play the role of advocates in the gun violence debate.

The self-imposed constraint on gun safety advocacy goes back to the firestorm that was ignited by physicians who were one of many groups that called for stricter gun controls, if not some degree of outright abolition of guns, during the public debates that led up to the passage of the assault weapons ban and Brady laws in 1993-94.  In retaliation, the NRA launched a successful campaign to defund the CDC from sponsoring gun research, and continues its barrage of nonsensical claims about the inherent value of guns to protect us from crime and violence.  Worse, many of these so-called “studies” are the handiwork of individuals who use their alleged medical credentials to promote social and political agendas that go far beyond any rational discussion about guns or anything else.

One of the latest salvos is the handiwork of an Arizona internist, Jane Orient, who recently published a survey of gun control research in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, an organization which can best be described as “libertarianism meets medicine.”  Now don’t get me wrong.  Physicians have as much right to organize and advocate for any political position as anyone else.  They also have the right to publicly criticize any and all government policies that affect their work as physicians.  But there is a difference between using your status as a medical professional to challenge medical procedures or policies, as opposed to promoting a political agenda based on unproven claims masquerading as medical research.

There is simply no valid proof to the continuous claims made by NRA-leaning researchers that a positive correlation exists between private ownership of guns and decreases in crime rates.  The best the pro-gun crowd can offer are studies that show a decline in gun violence coincident with an increase in concealed-carry licensing.  But what do they say when a jurisdiction like New York City sees a significant drop in violent crime while, at the same time, refusing to relax its stringent gun control laws at all?  The silence is deafening.  The truth is that Dr. Orient and her followers are opposed to gun control because they are opposed to all government regulations, not just as they might apply to guns, but as they apply to environment, financial activities and, of course, the practice of medicine itself.

On the other hand, when serious research on gun violence is done by serious medical and public health researchers, they need to put as much time and energy into publicizing the results as they spend in doing the research itself.  Sending a press release to the gun control lobby, like the Brady Campaign or The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence does nothing to mitigate the pro-gun advocacy work of Jane Orient and her like-minded friends.  But if the American Academy of Pediatrics decided it wanted to tell the world about a new study on school bullying, I guarantee they would send something to every PTA.  I’m really glad that a few voices are finally speaking up for the necessity of more physician advocacy about guns.  Like I said yesterday, I just want a fair fight, and for that to take place, the medical community has to get back into the fray.

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