Should Doctors Speak Out About Gun Violence?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


December 20, 2018

Hi. I'm Art Caplan, from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center.

"Stay in your lane." We've probably all heard about this. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is angry that doctors are speaking out after mass gun violence episodes in places like the Kroger store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, where two African Americans were shot and killed, and the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 11 died. Many physicians and public health experts have begun to speak up, to say that we've got to do something to control gun violence. The NRA is having none of it.

Are they right? Do you have to be a gun owner or run a gun shop to speak about gun policy? I think this is absurd. If you are someone who works in an emergency room and pulls bullets out of people on a regular basis because of gun violence, I think that qualifies you as an expert. I believe that all of us can have opinions about the necessity of taking steps to make guns and gun ownership safer. Remember, while many people may worry about the Second Amendment and wonder whether it extends to allowing people to own high-powered rifles like the AR-15, the big push for medicine—and the appropriate push for medicine—is to cut down on accidents and acts of gun harm that take place because of a lack of due diligence.

What are we talking about in practical terms? We're talking about reminding your patients that they should lock up their guns and their ammunition, and lock them up in separate places. This is common sense, but sometimes people need reminders. People need to be reminded to tell their children what to do if they find a gun, because so many preventable deaths result from children picking up a gun and shooting themselves or someone else.

Children also need to understand what to do should they find a weapon. It's reasonable for parents to ask if there are guns in the house when someone invites their child over to visit. Parents want to make sure guns are locked up and put away. Not that you can't go visit someone who might have a gun in the house, but you want to make sure that gun safety is advanced.

And if there are signs that someone might be suicidal or depressed and there are guns in the house, or you think that person may want to go out and buy a gun, then as a physician, you need to understand how to watch for and detect those signals; and as a family member, to understand what to do if you're worried about that. That's a pretty big order. It makes sense to involve doctors in it. I don't believe that the NRA is going to take up efforts to detect symptoms of suicidality in a family member. So the notion that doctors, public health people, or, for that matter, any American should "stay in their lane" and not speak up when they have views that they want to express about guns, the control of guns, and gun safety, is patently ridiculous. The moral thing to do is to exercise your right to an opinion about what to do about gun violence.

We certainly have an epidemic of gun violence. We certainly have an epidemic that isn't replicated anywhere else in the world, no matter how many guns they have. More people die in the United States from gun violence than people die in Afghanistan and Iraq—active war areas. This is an issue that demands attention. It demands attention from doctors, healthcare leaders, public health leaders, and anyone who will add their voice to say that we must do more research [on gun violence and gun safety] and to say that there are steps we must take to enhance gun safety.

I don't believe that staying in your lane is good advice. I think it shows that the NRA is under the influence of fear that any steps to improve gun safety are going to damage an individual's right to own a gun. I think that's a false belief. It doesn't make any sense. Many nations have taken steps to improve gun safety, whether through background checks or encouraging restrictions on sales of guns to people with criminal or mental health histories. It doesn't mean the end of the right to own a gun.

So don't be under the influence of the NRA. Don't stay in your lane. Speak up loudly when you have a view about guns and gun safety.

I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU. Thanks for watching.


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