By MATTHEW S. ELLMAN, MD and JULIE R. ROSENBAUM, MD
What if firearm deaths could be reduced by
visits to the doctor? More than 35,000 Americans are killed annually by
gunfire, about 60% of which are from suicide. The remaining deaths are mostly
from accidental injury or homicide. Mass shootings represent only a tiny
fraction of that number.
There’s a lot physicians can do to reduce
these numbers. Typically, medical organizations such as the AMA recommend
counseling patients on firearm safety. But there is another way to use
medical expertise to help reduce harm from firearms: physicians should evaluate
patients interested in purchasing firearms. The idea would be to reduce the
number of guns that get into the hands of people who might be a danger to
themselves or others due to medical or psychiatric conditions. This
proposal has precedents: physicians currently perform comparable standardized
evaluations for licensing when personal or public safety may be at risk, for
example, for commercial truck drivers, airplane pilots, and adults planning to
adopt a child. Similar to these models, a subset of physicians would be
certified to conduct standardized evaluations as a prerequisite for gun
As a primary care physicians with decades
of practice experience, we have seen the ravages of gun violence in our
patients too many times. A 50-year-old man shot in the spinal cord 30 years ago
who is paraplegic and wheelchair-dependent. A 42-year-old woman who sends her
teenage son to school every day by Uber because another son was shot to death
walking in their neighborhood. A teacher from Sandy Hook who struggles to cope
with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Physicians can contribute their expertise toward determining objective medical impairments impacting safe gun ownership. These include undiagnosed or unstable psychiatric conditions such as suicidal or homicidal states, memory or cognitive impairments, or problems such as very poor vision, all of which may render an individual incapable of safely storing and firing a gun. In this model, the clinical role would be limited in scope. The physician would complete a standardized evaluation and offer recommendations to an appropriate regulatory body; the physician would not be the final decisionmaker regarding licensing. An appeal process would be assured for those individuals who disagree with the assessment.
In defiance of dire predictions, children haven’t been sent to workhouses and women haven’t been chained to utensils after the GOP gained strength in the House and the Senate. And Vivek Murthy, the unabashed Obamaphile, was finally confirmed Surgeon General.
To be honest, I always thought the controversy surrounding Murthy’s nomination because of his stance on gun control was rather daft. Stopping doctors from pontificating over guns, such as the Docs versus Glocks legislation, is like banning me from trying to convert Pope Francis to Hinduism. The legislation is a parody not just for its own sake but because what it seeks to prevent is parody as well.
Murthy’s first challenge is to raise the position of the Surgeon General from that tokenism of a career UN bureaucrat to something vaguely useful. Which means Murthy must resist the call of banality, the banality of ideology and the ideology of making all of mankind’s imperfections public health problems.
Why are they so afraid of public health types who want to do something about the carnage caused by guns in America?
Vik Khanna is the latest man with a gun to write squealing in terror before the kale crunching, fitbit wearing hordes of public health types who he is somehow sure are out to disarm him and, even more hilariously, have any chance of doing so.
Vik, buddy, no one and especially the roughly 28 folks in public health not completely distracted by their lack of funding and inability to secure tenure is capable of doing anything that will pry your gun from your warm-blooded grip. There is no political movement to take away anyone’s guns. The NRA is the mightiest lobbying outfit in these United States and the best Mike Bloomberg or Bill Gates are going to be able to do is to get the anti-gun lobby a few more op-eds and soundbites.
Vik stop being afraid of your critics. You hold all the bullets er … cards. Time to think harder. Do public health folks have anything to offer that might reduce the mayhem while letting you hunt deer or shoot partridge or blast targets or whatever it is you and your son like to do with your guns?
Well yes in fact there are some things from the minds of the unarmed weenies of public health worth your consideration and that of your open-carry pals.
I am a public health professional, educated at the vaunted Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Hygiene and Public Health. I like guns, and I believe the Second Amendment clearly secures the rights of individuals to own firearms.
You read that correctly. I am a public health professional.
And I like guns.
This make me a heretic in American public health, where embracing firearms and the rights of gun owners is a gross violation of orthodoxy.
As a society, our focus on guns and not gun users derives from the shock of mass killings, such as those in Newtown, CT, Aurora, CO, Virginia Tech, and Norway, which has some of the strictest gun control laws on the planet. Mass killings, however tragic, get distorted by saturation media hysterics and 24-hour political grandstanding. What gun opponents refuse to discuss is the precipitous fall in violent crime and deaths by firearms over the past 20 years, and how it coincides with an equally dramatic increase of guns in circulation in the US.
While that isn’t cause and effect, the association is certainly curious.
In 2013, the Institute of Medicine, at the behest of the Centers for Disease Control, produced a report on firearms violence that has been ignored by the mainstream media. The upshot: defensive use of firearms occurs much more frequently than is recognized, “can be an important crime deterrent,” and unauthorized possession (read: by someone other than the lawful owner) of a firearm is a crucial driver of firearms violence.
That report went away for political reasons. Translation. Nobody wanted to talk about it because it raised more questions than it answered.
If Obama’s nominee for the position of Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, is not endorsed by the Senate because Senate Democrats from conservative states are too scared to vote for him for fear of losing votes from a population, egged on by the National Rifle Association (NRA), that passionately supports firearms, the first words that come to mind are ‘unfortunate,’ ‘tragic’ and ‘daft,’ although not in that particular order.
Words that do not come to mind are ‘surprising’ or ‘unprecedented.’ This is the natural result of decades of actively encouraging science to mix with politics.
In an ideal world, or I should say reasonable world, noting that perfection is not a pre-requisite to being reasonable, it would scant matter what Murthy thought about firearms.
He would be judged on his (impeccable) credentials, (unmistakable) leadership, and (imaginative) entrepreneurship not to mention his gumption in standing up for what he believes.
It would, of course, be utterly naïve to believe that in the real world his politics do not matter.
I doubt Murthy would have advanced so precociously, let alone been nominated for the position of Surgeon General, if he were a second amendment absolutist, an implacable limited government advocate or had written extensively about the role of free market in healthcare, all things else being equal.
We applaud him for standing up for his convictions not just because of his standing up but for the nature of his convictions.
This is not to suggest that Murthy’s worldview is expedient. There’s no reason to doubt its sincerity. It’s to suggest that a certain weltanschauung is incompatible with progress in academia and beyond.
That’s because despite living in an age of unprecedented reason we have been unable to render unto science what is unto science and render unto politics what is unto politics, a distinction our species has made little progress in making in the last two thousand years.
There aren’t many who would quibble with an argument that those with severe mental illness—specifically, individuals “who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. or otherwise have been [legally judged] to have a severe mental condition that results in the individuals presenting a danger to themselves or others“—should not be able to purchase firearms. Right? Right.
Making that law isn’t actually the trouble (expanding background checks is, of course, a different story). It’s already law, and has been on the books for awhile. The trouble is enforcing it.
The federal government maintains the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a database of people who are federally prohibited from purchasing guns, including felons, people convicted of domestic violence, and individuals who meet the extreme mental illness criteria above. Except:
Federal law does not require State agencies to report to the NICS the identities of individuals who are prohibited by Federal law from purchasing firearms, and not all states report complete information to the NICS.
To recap: We have federal criteria that prohibits certain individuals from buying firearms. The feds maintain a database of known individuals for background checks (which take 30 seconds, per the regulation). But states aren’t required to offer the names of “prohibitors” to the database.
Gun rights advocates are correct: a well armed principal might have reduced the death toll from the tragic elementary school shootings in Connecticut last week.
Gun carrying citizens might also have been able to take down the shooters in Aurora and Virginia Tech. To most people, after all, guns are about self-defense, not about committing crimes. As the old saying goes: “There has never been a mass shooting at a gun show.”
On the other hand, gun control advocates are correct to point out that mentally disturbed people like Adam Lanza would not be able to commit massacres if they were prevented from getting their hands on high-powered, semiautomatic weapons. They are also correct to point out that Americans have staggeringly easy access to weapons that far exceed what any sportsmanlike hunter would use during deer season.
In other words, figuring out what to do in the wake of the Connecticut massacre means recognizing the truth in both of these views. It means considering the possibility that the answer to reducing gun violence is a matter of both having more guns and less.
To understand what I mean by “both more and less,” I offer two analogies: a straightforward one about airport security, and a more unexpected one about breast cancer screening.
There are two reasons not to talk about gun control in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown atrocity, and opposition by the NRA and its adherents is neither of them.
The first is that addressing gun control right after innocents are shot might in some way seem exploitative. The second is that no imaginable degree of stringent gun control could fully exclude the possibility of an unhinged adult shooting a kindergartener.
But both of these objections are as porous as the sands of our shores battered by Hurricane Sandy. And a consideration of those shores readily reveals why.
With regard to exploitation, there was no thought of it as post-Sandy ruminations turned to how we might best prevent or at least mitigate the next such catastrophe. It was not exploitative to look around the world at strategies used to interrupt storm surges, divert floodwaters, or defend infrastructure. Those reflections continue.
Similarly, it’s not exploitative when my clinical colleagues and I speak to our patients in the aftermath of a heart attack or stroke about what it will take to prevent another one. In fact, these exchanges have a well-established designation in preventive medicine: the teachable moment.
It is opportunistic, but in a positive way: There is an opportunity to do what needs to be done. Admittedly, it’s better to talk about preventing heart disease, or the drowning of Staten Island, or of New Orleans, or the shooting of children, before ever these things happen. But the trouble tends to be: Nobody is listening then.
We are constitutionally better at crisis response than crisis prevention.