Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Gun Debate

Several factors in the gun debate border on medical and safety topics for the general public. To that end, I've given a fair amount of thought to the matter. If you'll indulge the borderline political debate, the following explains my take on the issue, from a health perspective.

In the past, I've spoken at length to a few of my European colleagues who deal with the health consequences of blunt force and knife injuries with much higher frequency than gunshot wounds. Most of them attribute this to the gun laws of most European nations which require a full blown proficiency test and background check for owning a firearm.  It's easy to obtain or create a bladed or blunt weapon, so violent crime still exists. Murder happens, but neglecting military and paramilitary activity, fewer large scale massacres occur with regularity. Gun crime also occurs in the small scale, but not as frequently as here in the states. In fact, one German coroner with whom I spoke as a medical student, visited Kentucky on exchange to learn more about gunshot wound pathology, since he saw fewer than 70 gun crimes a year on average. 

This illustrates a pertinent point. Fewer people owning guns can minimize but not completely eradicate gun crime. As the popular saying goes "if owning a gun is a crime, only criminals will own guns." While I understand the sentiment and see the need for defining sides in a debate, a middle ground does exist that would satisfy people on both sides of the debate. 

The European system still allows the average citizen to own a gun, protecting the right to bear arms, but anyone requesting the permit must demonstrate an ability to use the gun properly, safely and with restraint. If, as several of those I've heard and seen arguing state, any limits prevent ownership, I will again point to the driver's licensing system already in place. Do we simply hand keys to a 16 year old and let them have free reign over a 2 ton pile of metallic death? No, we first insure that they are able to appropriately comport themselves as a driver. Tests, both written and practical, to prove proficiency in operation of the vehicle and knowledge of the traffic laws, give some semblance of assurance of safety. The debate still rages over whether this is adequate. Many states require formal driver's instruction and a permit period lasting months or years to protect the citizens on the road. Why should a gun, which carries significantly more responsibility and has similar power to end life quickly, be any different.

The average citizen (or the child thereof) could easily obtain appropriate instruction in the safe use and care of firearms and obtain a permit to do so, satisfying the desire to uphold the second amendment. However, not everyone will pass the test and background check(just like the driver's test, which has a reported 20% failure rate GMAC), especially those with a history of violent crime. It would also be useful to field questions to evaluate the psychiatric fitness of the owner, which also exist to a certain extent on the driver's test. That level of evaluation prevents unskilled users and possibly violent persons from simply walking into a store and walking out with an arsenal. The common defense and well-maintained militia still have access to firearms with which to defend their possessions and the country at large. And those of us who don't like being shot have some sense that, just like the slim margin of safety on the highway, we are safe in our homes. Or in a movie theater. Or at church. Or at a football game. Or at school. 


  1. Couple of questions/comments.
    1. What is the overall rate of violent crime in Europe compared to the US? Their restrictions on gun ownership/access may have decreased gun crime, but has this just shifted violent crimes to stabbing, blunt force, etc?
    2. As my Driver's Ed teacher always stated, "Driving is not a right," whereas gun ownership is mentioned specifically in the bill of rights. While I can see how providing a license-like procedure may prevent some people such as this Colorado guy from getting weapons, it will not stop most criminals who obtain weapons by illegal means.
    3. The real intent of the founding fathers was to ensure that the people of the country maintain the ability to rise up if needed against a dictator. While this seems like an inconceivable event to most of us, the reality is that a great portion of the world understands this need and wishes they had better access to weapons. (ie Syrian rebels and most of Africa).

    1. Delayed response if I've ever made one:
      1. It's dependent on location, but there is a fairly high overall crime rate in Great Britain, for example, and as you've said, it trends more toward physical violence and theft/destruction of property.
      2. While gun ownership is a constitutional right, one can argue that all rights are granted and governed by legal statute, no matter how "inalienable." The point of the analogy hinges not on the legality, but the idea of destructive force in a controlled setting.
      3. Agreed. And valid. But also not the thrust. I'm not advocating that no one be allowed to own a gun. I'm advocating for obvious, public and reasonable restrictions on gun ownership and appropriate training. While I'd love the perfect world where everyone learned to use a gun responsibly on their own or from their parents, teachers, etc, I'd be horribly naive to expect it in "real world" settings.
      Great points, all, and I think this discussion is always worth having.