Sean Palfrey is a Boston-based pediatrician who has been a long-time advocate for improving children’s welfare through aggressive public health strategies, including the use of vaccinations to protect kids from all sorts of disease. His latest comment in this regard appeared last week in Huffington, and while you might wonder what this has to do with guns, indulge me for a few paragraphs and let me explain.
The recent public spat over the efficacy of vaccinating children erupted after a measles outbreak was traced to an amusement park in Southern California, which then prompted the Republicans to try and score a few anti-immigration points by forecasting a potential catastrophe due to infections spread by unvaccinated illegal immigrants, which then led to the usual Republican pandering about why government should be getting into the vaccination game at all. And that a physician turned Presidential candidate used to be against vaccinations but now isn’t sure what he’s for or against, has just muddied the waters a little more.
For a moment, let’s put all that nonsense behind us and focus on what Sean Palfrey really says. The point he’s making about vaccinations is they protect the human species against diseases for which there is no cure once the infection occurs. In this respect, vaccines become the cure for certain diseases through prevention, whereas we usually think of being cured as what doctors do to us after we get sick. We wouldn’t need government-mandated vaccinations if everyone shared Sean Palfrey’s belief about the positive effects of this proactive response to medical risk. But prevention of disease is simply too important to be left to everybody’s individual choice.
One disease which continues to escape government-mandated controls is something called gun violence, which kills more than 30,000 Americans each year. And if the NRA and other pro-gun folks want to continue to debase this discussion by claiming that these deaths have nothing to do with guns, that’s fine. But notice that I’m not casting blame on anyone for these gun deaths; I’m not saying that people with guns are good or bad. I’m simply saying that, at the end of the day, if someone puts a loaded gun to their own head or to someone else’s head and pulls the trigger, I guarantee you that someone will be dead. And death from anything other than natural causes is a medical issue and if it is not brought under control, it constitutes a medical risk.
A recent study confirms what I have long suspected, namely, that most people who visit doctors really don’t care, nor are they insulted or angered when the physician asks them whether they own guns. And while the study was based on a small sample of patients, it was conducted in Texas, where opposition to more restrictive gun laws ranges from fierce to worse. The fact is that nobody ever committed an act of gun violence, no matter how it’s defined, without first getting hold of a gun. And since, by definition, none of the 31,000 Americans who will die from gunshots this year will die a natural death, physicians need to adopt, in the words of Sean Palfrey, the strongest possible defense in order to go on the offense regarding the medical risks of guns.
If a gun-owning patient believes that anything said by a doctor about guns is out of bounds, he’s not required to accept the doctor’s advice. And God knows there are plenty of us walking around, sicut me, refusing to follow medical advice about our smoking, our drinking, our guns or our weight. But the government’s inability to go on the offense about gun violence has absolutely nothing to do with any evidence-based knowledge that having guns around reduces medical risk. And until a credible, evidence-based argument proving that guns reduce harm is produced by the pro-gun side, physicians should continue to ask patients to immunize themselves against gun violence by getting rid of the guns.