Physician, heal thyself

July 14, 1995|By Maggie Gallagher

THIRTY-EIGHT thousand dead; 99,000 wounded -- that is the toll that guns are taking each year in America, according to a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that is devoted entirely to "the unrelenting epidemic of violence in America."

It's been three years since former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared violence was a "public health emergency." Since then, the situation has gotten, if anything, worse. This year there will be more brain traumas caused by gunfire than auto crashes. By the year 2000, guns will become the leading cause of all injury deaths in the United States. The tab for all this carnage, in medical costs alone, now runs more than $4 billion.

The statistics revealed in articles like these are horrible, the sentiments expressed laudable -- but the solutions proposed are frankly laughable.

JAMA's lead editorial, for example, urges doctors to educate their patients about the "hazards of firearms" and domestic abuse. Excuse me, but didn't we just get rid of one surgeon general for meddling in our sex lives? Do we really need a whole pack of doctors telling us what to think about other political issues which are frankly outside their expertise?

Imagine: The scene is an inner-city hospital. A teen-ager, his body riddled with bullet holes, is rolled into the emergency room. The doctor, launching into his new role as a public health educator, shakes his finger at the victim's Uzi and says: "Young man, don't you realize you can kill people with that?"

Or better yet, the next surgeon general orders a new warning on tobacco products: "Warning: Burning cigarettes on your spouse may be hazardous to her health."

But here's the real kicker: Health professionals, reports this prestigious journal, should "influence public attitudes toward violence prevention and support for legislative and regulatory measures . . . such as those that limit the availability of handguns."

Oh, really? Gun control laws are among liberalism's most obvious failures. Cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., find that carnage can co-exist quite peaceably with the strictest of gun control laws. New York's recent encouraging drop in violent crime goes to show containing the epidemic has more to do with effective community policing, and stricter enforcement of laws against disorderly conduct, than gun control. Targeting people and their behavior, rather than a particular class of weapons, has proven the most promising crime-fighting strategy.

Recognizing this, the big trend in states is in the opposite direction: making it easier for law-abiding Americans to own and carry weapons. Just this year, Virginia, Arkansas, Idaho,

Oklahoma, Texas and Utah passed laws permitting ordinary citizens to carry concealed handguns, bringing to 25 the number of states that permit almost all adults to do so. Where government cannot guarantee the public safety, these state legislatures realize, it has no business keeping private citizens from protecting themselves.

The JAMA attempt to recast violence as a public health issue provides an interesting window on how the cultural elite operates in a democracy. Professionals, whose authority stems from their education and expertise, like to use their bully pulpits to impose their fashionable views outside their own special knowledge of average Americans, implying that those who disagree are ignorant, irrational or unscientific.

So that parents, for example, who oppose condom distribution are cast as dangers to their kids' health. Or now, patients who own guns may be lectured about their bad health practices.

You can't stanch a mortal wound with Band-Aids. You can't dust off a failed policy like gun control, dress it up as "tough on crime" or even a "public health initiative," and expect to get results.

Let us not be deceived by language. Crime is not really an epidemic, violence is not an illness, and criminals are not merely sick. It's such thinking that has helped get us into our current mess.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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