Gun Laws From a Doctor’s Perspective

Gun Rights

News of last month’s horrific Texas school shooting reached me during my current stay in London. Then came word of the Oklahoma physician shot to death by a disturbed patient. Doctors like myself suffer such shootings both as caregivers for victims and out of concern for ourselves. Like others, we nervously look over our shoulders because our society protects gun rights for even our most deranged. In a country of more than 330 million, that amounts to an army of militarized kooks.  

I once had a scare eerily reminiscent of the Oklahoma episode. A disturbed patient disrupted a waiting room while looking for me, and the situation required police intervention. Since then, I’ve preferred side office entrances and exits without public access. This is my personal reaction to the reign of terror created by U.S. gun culture and the political toadies who prioritize single issue NRA voters over the lives of their constituents.  

Out of curiosity I checked on the timing of the last mass shooting in Britain, where I am currently, expecting it to be “never.” I was wrong. It was only last August. But it was the first episode in over a decade, a period in which the U.S. had 124 such episodes. Britain’s August tragedy offers lessons. It showed the same heart-wrenching pattern of many American tragedies. An angry, single 22-year-old male in Plymouth shot his mother after an argument, and then wandered the local streets killing four others before shooting himself.

The perpetrator had purchased the gun through legal means after navigating a detailed set of checks. In Britain, guns can be purchased but it’s harder. There are only about two million guns, amounting to less than 5% of U.S. per capita levels. About two thirds are shotguns, usually used for hunting. Standard handguns are banned. The episode shows that the U.K. suffers the same toxic mix of social dysfunction and male rage. Fortunately for the Brits, common sense measures, though not eliminating this risk, reduce it substantially. Prior episodes, such as a 1987 mass shooting that left 17 dead, led to soul-searching followed by effective legislation including a ban on semi-automatic weapons. Can anyone doubt how much worse the Plymouth episode might have been if the perpetrator had such a weapon?

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The major obstacle to reducing U.S. gun violence is the NRA and its phony mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” As Malcolm Gladwell illustrated so well in “Talking to Strangers,” research shows the likelihood of killing oneself or another depends very much upon circumstances that can be transient or simply one-off affairs. A readily available gun facilitates lethal violence that might never occur with even minor obstacles or with time for homicidal passions to cool.  

Four years ago, following a number of mass killings including the Parkland, Texas school massacre, the American College of Physicians (ACP) updated its common sense recommendations to allow legitimate access to guns for sport or personal protection while affording some of the protections that work in Britain. In response, the NRA outrageously tweeted that the ACP, which represents more than 160,000 physicians and trainees, should “keep in its lane.” Typical of its science-based approach, the ACP had cited specific evidence for each recommendation. The research that guides rational recommendations, like the ACP’s, has been hampered by the NRA’s campaign to prevent research into gun violence. So, who should the public trust? Doctors using evidence to save lives or the gun lobby hiding tragic truths from the American people?   

Who should the public trust? Doctors using evidence to save lives or the gun lobby hiding tragic truths from the American people?  

My medical practice recently announced that it installed panic alarms, posted security guards and held 19 active shooter drills at medical offices. Turning medical clinics into virtual fortresses may be the price we pay for Congressional deference to NRA extremism. But will such measures provide patients and doctors the security they deserve? I doubt it. Nor will the watered-down compromise bill recently signed by President Biden. Lacking universal background checks and restrictions on semi-automatic guns, its futility will be apparent when the next tragedy strikes. 

The NRA spouts off about self-defense. It’s time for the public to respond in its own defense. Concerned voters should reject any candidate for office who takes NRA blood money or who declines to support stronger reforms to restore public safety. The Brits save lives with strong and effective gun laws. We can too.

Daniel Stone is Regional Medical Director of Cedars-Sinai Valley Network and a practicing internist and geriatrician with Cedars Sinai Medical Group. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Cedars-Sinai.

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