Politics & Policy

Gun Control and a Doctor’s ‘Lane’

Students attend a gun-control rally on Capitol Hill, March 14, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Like anyone else, a physician may speak his mind. But doctor groups are in no position to provide policy guidance to legislators.

As a practicing physician, I am interested in limiting bad habits that undermine my patients’ health and lead to life-threatening events. This is why I am against fast-food bacon cheeseburgers and why I hate to see gas-guzzling cars pouring out blue smoke into the common sky. I have treated many patients who ate one too many hot dogs at a ball game only to arrive at the ER with a heart attack.

But imagine how you would feel if you found out I suddenly had the power to ban hot dogs or to control automobile emissions. I am not an expert on either. True, I can exercise my First Amendment rights by pointing a finger at these public-health risks — but that’s as far as it goes, and as far as it should go. I do not guide public policy or restrict my patients’ lives. Nor should I. I am no position to provide mandates. This is not my “lane.”

The same holds true for gun control. I believe a physician may indulge her or his First Amendment rights to decry the Second Amendment or to express an opinion on limiting gun ownership, but let’s face it, when it comes to gun policy, we doctors are not experts. That goes not just for individuals but also for groups like the American College of Physicians, which last month updated its firearms policy by offering restrictive strategies intended to “help reduce firearms-related injuries and deaths by keeping guns out of the hands of those at risk of harming themselves or others.” The ACP went on to suggest that physicians need to provide guidance to legislators.

When did the folks at ACP become experts on gun control? The answer is they aren’t. The fact that most ACP members favor stricter gun-control legislation does not automatically put them in a position to guide legislation; nor does the fact that physicians have to treat the devastating injuries that a gun can inflict. Certainly a forensic psychiatrist, say, is entitled to his or her professional opinion that those with a violent or significant mental-health history should be excluded from owning guns, but that’s as far as it goes.

Further, there is some evidence that guns per se aren’t always the public-health problem as much as the culture of violence that surrounds their use. In England and Wales, for example, where gun-control laws are much stricter than here, nevertheless homicides were up 15 percent in 2017, with a 22 percent increase in knife crime and an 11 percent increase in gun crime.  Meanwhile, here in the U.S., gun crime is far lower than it was a quarter-century ago despite our laxer gun laws and brisker gun sales.

The NRA reacted swiftly to the ACP’s position paper, cautioning this prominent group of internists to “stay in their lane.” Physicians across the country fought back with a Twitter storm of gory photos of gun-wounded patients with the hashtag “#thisisourlane.” The tragic shootings at Mercy Hospital in Chicago last week then caused the whole thing to snowball, as a great emergency-medicine physician who was committed to taking care of the underserved, Dr. Tamara O’Neal, was gunned down in cold blood inside her hospital.

We can all agree that violence like this is tragic. But that doesn’t change the basic equation here when it comes to who makes policy. We physicians (and physician groups) are entitled to our opinions, while gun owners continue to have the right to bear arms. Guiding legislators on gun control is not a physician’s proper lane. Treating victims of gun violence does not automatically make physicians experts in what causes gun violence or which weapons should be allowed.

Lawmakers should be guided by the facts. Gun violence and the factors that precipitate it require further study. Lawmakers also must uphold both of the first two amendments to the Constitution.

We doctors, meanwhile, must treat the sick and wounded and can speak our minds freely, but we should recognize that we are in no position to provide official regulatory guidance on cars, fast food, or guns. Doing so undermines our credibility and basic identity.

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