Thursday, June 18, 2015

After Newtown

I am a life-long gun enthusiast. Although my father never owned a firearm, some of my fondest childhood memories are of the avuncular Vietnam veterans letting me shoot their AR15s and 1911s at what was then an unregulated firing range in Lytle Creek Canyon at the east end of the San Gabriels. As soon as I was old enough, I started buying my own firearms, and I’ve had guns ever since. The stereotype of the firearm owner may be that of a bug-eyed, slavering fanatic in constant fear of black helicopters, pulling a trigger as rapid-fire as a gun will allow, but that cliché does not match the reality of the vast majority of American sport-shooters and hunters who, like me, have grown up with guns as a part of their daily lives.

I am also an emergency physician; as an ER doctor at the only Level I trauma center in Southern California’s Inland Empire I have treated hundreds of men, women, and children who have suffered gunshot wounds. Having seen it firsthand, I have learned to respect the destructive power of these weapons, including the guns that I myself own. In no uncertain terms guns are far more able to cause grave injuries than knives or other common weapons. Modern soldiers are sent in to combat with guns and not swords for a reason.

As an emergency physician I am on the very front lines of medicine and see how health care needs manifest in a community. Winters bring more cases of pneumonia. Surges in gas prices like the one in 2008 when a gallon topped $5 meant an uncanny decrease in the number of car accidents that summer. And firearms have been used far too frequently in the violence that has afflicted our communities. The recent spate of mass shootings in America has given further urgency to the need to have a discussion about the way we live with our guns.

As a gun owner I have skin in the game when the question of how we will address firearms regulation is raised. I value my right to own my guns and participate in the sport which I have enjoyed my whole life. But the majority of us firearms owners agree that in the wake of the mass shootings in 2012 alone, such as at Oikos University in Oakland, California; the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, gun ownership, like any right, is not an unfettered one. Just as the right to free speech does not mean one may yell “fire” in a crowded theater, the right to own firearms does not guarantee one should have the means to commit a mass shooting in one.

The gun lobby has, with some success, been assiduous in its efforts to frame this question as a matter of the right to own firearms versus the abrogation of that right, which while raising tempers and inciting the passion of gun owners neatly sidesteps the real issue: the need for gun safety. Whenever the national conversation has returned to the question of gun safety, the National Rifle Association and its fellow lobbyists have instead blamed video games, indolent law enforcement, poor access to mental health services, etc., conscripting an army of straw men to divert the discussion to the false dilemma of gun liberties versus gun bans. Instead of taking this opportunity to engage in the gun safety debate, thereby helping shape this discussion, the gun lobby has instead chosen this answer: more guns, and more bullets.

Claiming that the only choice that can be made is either absolute prohibition or unrestricted access to firearms forces a false dilemma. The truth, of course, is that it will take an all-of-the-above approach – enforcement of existing laws, greater access to mental health care, an examination of our culture of violence, and yes, regulation, to prevent even more victims of gun shot wounds from entering my ER, and more national tragedies like the one in Newtown. The question we face as Americans, and as gun owners, is what we will choose in our communities: will we honor the lives of those twenty children by enacting common-sense, reasonable regulations, or will their deaths be remembered as sacrifices to the Moloch of the gun lobby’s relentless demands for unrestrained access to firearms?