The Corner

‘Guns Are a Public-Health Issue’ Is Not an Argument

Do you have a political opinion that you wish would get more traction? Here’s some cynical advice: Call it a “public-health issue.” It’s the quickest way to seize the mantle of Science, which these days is the ultimate moral high ground. Remember, you’re not a political activist — you’re just a scientifically informed citizen with a concern about public health.

The American Medical Association (AMA) upped the ante on Tuesday by formally declaring gun violence a “public-health crisis” [my emphasis] and reiterating its support for various gun control measures. Unfortunately for the AMA, affixing the “public health” label on an issue adds no value to the debate. Most political issues have some relationship to people’s health, but that doesn’t mean that Science automatically comes down on one side or another. The AMA’s declaration is another exercise in science-gilding, which is the covering of one’s political beliefs with the veneer of scientific objectivity.

More research on gun violence is certainly welcome, and I’m sympathetic to the AMA’s complaint that the government is restricted from studying aspects of it. Nevertheless, physicians have no special ability to resolve the complex empirical debates over the effects of gun ownership. And even if they did have such an ability, balancing the gun issue’s competing individual rights and security claims is an inherently subjective task. Supporting waiting periods and background checks, as the AMA does, is not a “medical” position. It’s a political one, and it remains a political position even when an organization with a fancy professional name adopts it.

The faux-objectivity of the “public health” label is persuasive only for people already inclined to agree with the AMA’s positions on guns. For others, it’s more like a declaration of hostility. After all, “public health” conjures images of pollution and disease. Making gun owners feel like they are carrying around the Zika virus is not the way to foster a productive dialogue, nor is it a way to strengthen their confidence in scientific organizations. If the AMA politicizes guns, on what issues can it be trusted at all?

Law-abiding people own guns for a reason, and they do not welcome the implication that guns serve only nefarious purposes. Nobody talks about the upside to having lead in drinking water, or about the pros and cons of acid rain. Nobody objects to the goal of wiping out Ebola. Equating guns to these more traditional public-health concerns, even just implicitly, is pseudoscientific and a disservice to the debate.

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