[Ed: Southern Illinois University School of Medicine physician Richard Austin, MD published an attack on the National Rifle Association in the school’s quarterly alumnus magazine (Aspects). Dr. Wheeler, a graduate of the school’s first class and DRGO’s Director Emeritus, wrote this rebuttal (in “Letters to the Editor”), for the Summer/Fall 2019 issue. He urges SIU-Med to respect the civil rights of those whom it exists to serve—the people of central and southern Illinois. Minimally edited for DRGO.]
“Guns are a virus that must be eradicated.” This call to political action was issued by Chicago pediatrician and gun prohibition activist Katherine Christoffel, MD in an interview with the now-defunct American Medical News (January 3, 1994). It is one of many such unequivocal statements over the years by medical doctors with a passion for banning guns. And as my fellow alumnus Richard Austin, MD wrote in the Spring issue of Aspects, some doctors to this day insist that firearm policy is solidly in their area of expertise.
Dr. Austin called out a National Rifle Association tweet linking a well-reasoned November 2, 2018 NRA article protesting the latest call for gun prohibition from the American College of Physicians. The NRA piece called for doctors to refrain from using their authority to advocate in a policy area in which they had no expertise; simply put, to stay in their lane.
This measured response was not at all unexpected from the NRA, the oldest civil rights organization in America. It was arguably too mild, considering the ACP had just called for outlawing the possession of semiautomatic rifles, which is to say most rifles designed and manufactured since the Korean War. The ACP’s policy, if enacted, would launch the lives of crime of millions of Americans.
Nevertheless, the NRA’s rather mild brushback drove public health gun prohibitionists into a social media frenzy, aided as always by enabling major media. The Twitter hashtag #ThisIsOurLane became the rallying cry of medical gun control advocates. Law-abiding gun owners were demonized and the NRA was cast as the great Satan aiding and abetting what the angry doctors called “gun violence.”
I have followed the public health gun control movement since the early 1990s. That’s when I started seeing in medical journals and medical societies a clear institutional hostility to firearm ownership. The medical proponents of gun control were far more candid about their goals than today. They quickly learned that America is not ready to give up one of its enumerated civil rights on doctors’ orders. Still, the public health jihad on gun owners has persisted. Biased media reporting, which should shock no one, has still unfortunately misled the public. So here are some facts rarely disclosed in major media reports:
Medical doctors are unqualified by their training to advise anyone—patients or politicians—about gun policy or gun safety or anything else concerning guns. This is self-evident, but some doctors seem to believe that a desire not to see people injured with firearms makes them experts on firearm tactics, mechanics, ethics, safety, and laws.
Congress did not restrict federal funding for firearm research (contra Dr. Austin’s article). I know. I was one of three medical doctors who testified before the House Appropriations Committee on March 6, 1996. We showed the committee hard evidence of Centers for Disease Control leaders using taxpayer money to push for gun control. In response, Congress only prohibited the CDC’s “engaging in any activities to advocate or promote gun control.” The congressional committee further admonished that it “does not believe that it is the role of the CDC to advocate or promote policies to advance gun control initiatives, or to discourage responsible private gun ownership.” The legislative language could not have been clearer. Yet for decades media reports have kept alive the false narrative that Congress defunded gun research, keeping great minds from exploring “cures” for “gun violence.”
Leading public health researchers and officials are on record as opposing gun ownership, often in shockingly frank terms. Statements like these make it difficult to see public health gun research as true science rather than political advocacy:
“I hate guns and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to own one. If I had my way, guns for sport would be registered and all other guns would be banned.”—Deborah Prothrow-Stith, then assistant dean of Harvard School of Public Health and now Dean of Charles Drew U. College of Medicine; in her 1991 book Deadly Consequences, page 198.
“We’re going to systematically build a case that owning firearms causes deaths. We’re doing the most we can do, given the political realities.”—P.W. O’Carroll, Acting Section Head of Division of Injury Control, Centers for Disease Control, quoted in Marsha F. Goldsmith, “Epidemiologists Aim at New Target: Health Risk of Handgun Proliferation,” Journal of the American Medical Association vol. 261 no. 5, February 3, 1989, pp. 675-76.
Criminologists, not medical doctors, are the real experts in firearm crime, with an abundant research literature going back to the 1980s. Most of the criminology literature conflicts strikingly with the negative view of gun ownership promoted by public health researchers. And coincidentally (or maybe not), public health researchers tend to ignore this massive body of research. The California Medical Association even banned criminology research findings from its House of Delegates policy deliberations on gun control.
The National Rifle Association has spent tens of millions of dollars and untold volunteer hours over decades teaching gun safety in nearly every community in the United States. But organized medicine got into the gun “safety” counseling business only in the 1990s, oddly enough at the same time they started lobbying for gun prohibition. Early practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, included advising parents to get rid of their guns.
The overwhelming evidence shows that the medical establishment has a problem with the uniquely American civil right of gun ownership. Readers can dive into this evidence, with primary sources, at the website of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, DRGO.us. Now more than ever it is crucial to see the public health community’s involvement in gun policy for what it is—pure political advocacy against one of our civil rights. At least half of the counties in Illinois have joined the Second Amendment sanctuary movement. Only in the face of true threats to their civil rights would the people of Illinois have deemed it necessary to take this bold step. It should be a warning to activist doctors who want to write the Second Amendment out of the Bill of Rights—#StayInYourLane.
—Timothy Wheeler, MD graduated in SIU School of Medicine’s Charter Class of 1976. He is the founder and former director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, and a retired head and neck surgeon.