Trauma Surgeon's Grim Experience, Pacifist Beliefs Drive Anti-gun Effort

Group He Leads Fights To Curb Weapons Flow

April 25, 1997|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

He's a soft-spoken, unassuming man, but when he speaks out against guns, Dr. Donald Gann's words resonate.

Gann, a 65-year-old trauma surgeon in Baltimore, speaks from 35 years of experience: stitching together limbs and organs torn by bullets.

He also speaks from philosophical conviction. Gann has been a Quaker and volunteer in the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) since he was an undergraduate student in philosophy and physics at Dartmouth.

He is chairman of AFSC, an international organization devoted to promoting world peace since 1917.

Last week, the organization launched a campaign to stanch the flow of guns around the world by restricting the arms trade and educating people about the consequences of gun violence.

Mocking the slogan, "Guns don't kill, people do," Gann says, "I do think guns kill people. And sometimes, the people pulling the trigger are people who don't even know what they are doing -- like little kids. And sometimes the victims are people who are not intended to be shot -- like little kids."

A husband and a father of four, Gann is a short, graying man with cherubic features. He has a self-deprecating wit that belies a distinguished medical career.

His 40-page curriculum vitae tells the story of his accomplishments: academic appointments at Western Reserve University in Ohio, the Johns Hopkins University, Brown University and the University of Maryland; four high-level assignments at the UM Medical Center; publication of nearly 400 articles, books and chapters.

The Lutherville resident keeps a frenetic schedule: He's a professor of physiology at UM and vice chairman of the hospital's department of surgery. In addition, he travels regularly on AFSC business.

He went to Berlin in January for a ceremony at which Quakers were honored by German President Roman Herzog for organizing food programs for German children after World Wars I and II. That work won the group the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

In March, Gann visited Cambodia and Vietnam to support AFSC loan programs that help poor families start enterprises designed to help them become financially self-sufficient.

"Where and when he finds the time to doctor people, I don't quite know," says Sam Legg, a longtime friend and member of the staff at the AFSC's Baltimore office. "He seems to find a way to get everything done -- and get it done well.

"He brings commitment," Legg continued. "He brings intelligence. And he brings a long background of public service."

During the 1960s, Gann worked with AFSC in Cleveland to build bridges between white and black communities. He also organized numerous Vietnam War protests and helped AFSC ship medical supplies to North and South Vietnam.

The images of Gann's day job are often painful and bloody. But in the campaign against gun violence, they are the images he wants to instill in the minds of children, parents and government leaders around the world.

AFSC's plan is three-pronged. Organization members will be asked next month to write letters and speak out in favor of a United Nations resolution being introduced by Oscar Arias Sanchez, a Nobel laureate and former president of Costa Rica.

This resolution, the International Code of Conduct on Arms Trade, seeks to limit arms sales to regions of instability, countries with poor human rights records, dictatorial regimes and military aggressors.

AFSC also will ask supporters to write their congressional representatives in support of a similar code of conduct that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Our feeling is that the arms trade has a boomerang effect, as was the case in the gulf war," Gann says. "We sell weapons to people who are going to later use them against us.

"That doesn't seem like a wise course for anyone," he adds, "even if you're not a pacifist."

At the grass-roots level, Gann says, he plans to have trauma surgeons write a pamphlet showing the gruesome consequences of gun violence for use in schools around the country. He also intends to visit classrooms to tell students about his experiences with gunshot victims.

"People talk about deaths from guns because it's easy to measure," Gann says. "Disability is not easy to measure. Injury is the most costly disease we face in this country because the people who are hit by it are young and survivors spend many, many years of disabled lives. It's an enormous loss."

Those who work with Gann in AFSC say his medical training has deepened his commitment to helping others. It also affects his leadership style.

"He has an incisiveness, a let's-get-to-the-point kind of attitude that allows him to get a lot of things taken care of quickly," says Virden Seybold, director of AFSC's mid-Atlantic region for the past 11 years. "It's like he makes surgical strikes. He sees very quickly where he wants to go with an issue."

Seybold adds: "Sometimes it makes it hard for him to do the Quaker process, which is more deliberative."

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