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What a surprise! We are treated to yet another piece of research, this time in the American Journal of Medicine that tells us that the ownership of 250 million guns results in more gun violence. To me, the surprise is not the conclusion of the study, but the fact that medical and public health researchers continue to indulge themselves in trying to prove something which, analytically and logically, is so obvious.
Why is it obvious? Because the possession of a gun, by definition, creates a risk that disappears if the guns aren’t around. Now you can go on and on about mitigation strategies – mental health, background checks, enforcement – but to suggest that reducing something which is harmful should be based on increasing its availability is to engage in an Alice-in-Wonderland argument totally divorced from reality or common sense.
Which is exactly what the NRA has been doing for the past thirty years. And ever since they were able to end CDC funding of gun violence gun research, they’ve flooded the public domain with pro-gun bromides that not only deny the link between gun ownership and gun violence, but even claim that more guns in private hands protects Americans from gun violence. The “proof” that guns are a deterrent to gun violence is the assertion that gun homicides have dropped by more than 50% since the mid-90s, while gun ownership and concealed-carry licensing has doubled in the same twenty-year span.
The problem with this argument, however, is that more than 90% of the annual decline in gun homicides took place prior to 2000, while the increase in gun ownership and concealed-carry licenses largely took place after that date. In fact, gun homicides have slowly increased since Obama took office, exactly the period when gun sales and the number of concealed-carry licenses both showed significant growth. No matter how you analyze the data, the numbers since 2000 simply don’t support the NRA claims that more guns equals less gun violence.
Despite what readers may believe, I’m not against guns. After all, I make my living by selling them and training people how to use them. But I believe in informed public debate and, as Senator Moynihan used to say, “we’re entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts.” The CDC ban doesn’t prevent anyone from using the data, it simply doesn’t allow the CDC to fund research. In that regard physicians and medical professionals who want to contribute to the gun violence debate might take a page from the history of another physician-based organization that made a significant contribution to understanding and limiting violence of a much more dramatic type.
I’m referring to Physicians for Social Responsibility, a physician-led organization founded in 1961 that focused public consciousness about the health threats from nuclear war. PSR first began advocating test bans, arsenal reduction and non-proliferation during the height of the Cold War and faced an opponent – the U.S. Government – whose powers to persuade the public about the necessity of an arms race was far beyond the persuasive abilities and resources of the NRA. In 1985, largely based on its anti-nuclear work, PSR shared the Nobel Prize.
The role of physicians is to lessen harm. This not only means treating a patient after harm occurs, it also means developing pro-active strategies to diminish harm before the unhealthy event takes place. Physicians shouldn’t be in the slightest bit defensive about wanting to end gun violence, nor do they need to justify their commitment to healthy outcomes because the gun industry wants to keep selling guns. It’s time for physicians to move from research to advocacy and level the playing field between themselves and the NRA. I don’t care who wins the argument, I just want an even match