Tom Eblen

AMA, led by Lexington doctor, blames Congress for dereliction of duty in gun crisis

Crosses, one for each victim, line a walkway as a memorial to those killed in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting a few blocks from the club Friday in Orlando, Fla.
Crosses, one for each victim, line a walkway as a memorial to those killed in the Pulse nightclub mass shooting a few blocks from the club Friday in Orlando, Fla. AP

Who will Congress listen to now: the healers or the merchants of death?

The American Medical Association’s House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to declare gun violence a public health crisis.

Specifically, the nation’s largest and most influential physicians’ group urged Congress to end a policy that for two decades has intimidated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into all but banning research on gun violence. That policy has had a chilling effect on other public and private research, too.

The AMA also voted to support background checks and waiting periods for the purchasers of all firearms, not just handguns.

The AMA’s resolutions said it “recognizes that uncontrolled ownership and use of firearms, especially handguns, is a serious threat to the public’s health inasmuch as the weapons are one of the main causes of intentional and unintentional injuries and deaths.”

The AMA’s stand is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about gun control. But it underscores the absurdity of Congress’ two-decade effort to block legitimate scientific research that could reduce gun deaths and injury.

“Even as America faces a crisis unrivaled in any other developed country, the Congress prohibits the CDC from conducting the very research that would help us understand the problems associated with gun violence and determine how to reduce the high rate of firearm-related deaths and injuries,” said AMA President Steven J. Stack, an emergency room doctor at Saint Joseph East Hospital in Lexington.

“An epidemiological analysis of gun violence is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement, and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death and other harms to society resulting from firearms,” Stack said.

Congress instituted the policy in 1996 and has denied funding for gun-violence research at the urging of the National Rifle Association, which since the 1970s has become a shameless and uncompromising promoter of easy access to firearms.

The NRA sought the ban because it claimed previous gun-violence studies were biased. But what it fears most is an honest search for facts and truth. Since 2011, the gun lobby has even backed state laws prohibiting doctors from asking if a patient owns a gun or keeps it out of reach of children.

The AMA has long been more conservative in its approach to gun violence than many other groups of health-care professionals. This new stand was prompted by the tragedy in Orlando, in which an American-born Muslim man used an assault rifle to kill 49 people and wound 53 in a gay bar before police killed him.

Atrocities like this always spark public outrage and calls for sensible gun control, which opinion polls show most Americans want. But the problem is much bigger.

The AMA is right: gun violence is a public health crisis. Mass shootings account for only 2 percent of gun deaths. Most are the result of isolated murders, suicides, assaults, domestic violence and accidental shootings.

The CDC, in its most recent tabulation, counted 33,390 firearms deaths in 2014, about two-thirds of which were suicides. The agency said 627 people were killed in Kentucky that year with firearms, a rate of 13.8 per 100,000 population, higher than the national average of 10.2.

The first step toward solutions to any problem is fact-finding. Researching gun violence is no different than researching traffic accidents. After the nation’s highway death toll rose to alarming levels in the 1960s, the government focused on research.

That research didn’t lead to cars being banned or confiscated. But it did prompt laws requiring seat belts and air bags in new cars and safer design for both vehicles and highways. As a result, traffic deaths and injuries decreased significantly.

Thanks to the NRA’s no-compromise attitude and political clout, gun owners face much less scrutiny than drivers: no registration, training or liability insurance are required, and background-check laws have more holes than Swiss cheese.

The gun lobby opposes virtually every effort to make guns safer and gun owners more accountable, such as bullet tracing, trigger locks, safe-storage requirements or thumbprint access systems on weapons.

The NRA fires up its members by claiming that any restriction or safeguard is a first step toward bans and confiscation. Paranoia works. Each time the NRA screams “They’re gonna get your guns!” firearms sales soar and politicians quake.

The NRA obviously has no interest in reducing firearms deaths and injuries, so it probably will continue to oppose scientific research. It can’t risk a search for facts that might reveal inconvenient truths. Willful ignorance, emotion and fear-mongering are much better for NRA fundraising and gun industry profits.

Likewise, the NRA’s minions in Congress probably will ignore the AMA unless their constituents demand otherwise. It is easier for politicians to observe moments of silence and offer empty “thoughts and prayers” for victims than to actually do something about gun violence.

Research is a sensible place to start. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. It is deadly.