AMA's Gun Policy
Is the Cure Worse Than the Disease?

Illuminant by
Scott Farrell


October 2001


On June 20, 2001, the American Medical Association welcomed in its newest president, Dr. Richard Corlin, at a gala banquet at the group's Annual Meeting of the House of Delegates in Chicago. That's the good news. The bad news is that the doctors and nurses in attendance had hardly finished their dinners when the new president stood up and, in essence, declared a crusade against guns and gun owners — not just as part of a comprehensive plan for the future of the group, but pretty much as the sole cause of the AMA in the coming year. Corlin began by telling the assembled health care professionals about his early involvement in medicine and health care.

When I was old enough to get a driver's license, I got a job working as an Emergency Room aide and ambulance driver at Elizabeth General Hospital. In all that time, in five summers of working in two center city hospitals (in the 1940s and 1950s) — in the recovery room, in the morgue, in the emergency room, and driving the ambulance — I never saw even one gunshot victim.

Today, it's very different. Guns are so available and violence so commonplace that some doctors now see gunshot wounds every week — if not every day. It's as if guns have replaced fists as the playground weapon of choice. The kids certainly think so. In a nationwide poll taken in March [2001] after two students were shot to death at Santana High School near San Diego, almost half of the 500 high school students surveyed said it wouldn't be difficult for them to get a gun. And one in five high schoolboys said they had carried a weapon to school in the last 12 months. One in five. Frightening, isn't it?

Actually, what's really frightening is the distorted picture painted by Corlin. Guns are much more available and commonplace than they were in the 1940s and 1950s? Not likely, unless Corlin attended a high school which was radically different than any other in America. During that time period, firearms were available by mail, cost a small fraction of their current price, and often carried to school by students for harmless, recreational purposes. Today, buying even the most "sporting" of firearms means undergoing extensive investigation and wading through a sea of paperwork. Corlin's claim about easy access to guns is somewhat comparable to saying that "quality medical care is commonplace for everyone in America, and prescription pharmaceuticals are available at nominal cost to anyone."

Corlin continued his speech by quoting some facts and figures about the gun violence "epidemic". Corlin asked,

How does the disease present itself? Since 1962, more than a million Americans have died in firearm suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries. In 1998 alone, 30,708 Americans died by gunfire: 17,424 in firearm suicides, 12,102 in firearm homicides and 866 in unintentional shootings. Also in 1998, more than 64,000 people were treated in emergency rooms for non-fatal firearm injuries.

Startling figures, to be sure. Equally startling is the AMA president's implication that every single use of a firearm in this country is either a crime or an accident. Corlin didn't mention what percentage of those "violent incidents" were the result of the justified use of a firearm by someone defending their home, family or life. He didn't mention how many of those firearm injuries were caused by police officers apprehending violent criminals.

Most significantly, Corlin did not make any mention of how many people were actually saved from harm or death by the possession of a firearm, even when that firearm was not discharged. In fact, according to an oft-quoted study conducted by criminologist Gary Kleck, as many as two million Americans each year prevent a violent crime simply by displaying a firearm. Kleck's study was based on a telephone survey conducted at random all across the country. In conducting the survey, Kleck's staff asked respondents to relate their experiences, then recorded the results.

Interestingly, Corlin did not completely ignore Kleck's data. In fact, he appeared to allude to Kleck's study when proposing actions the American Medical Association should take to reduce gun violence. Corlin said,

We will not advocate any changes at all based on urban legend, anecdote or hunch. We will only base our conclusions on evidence-based data and facts.

In other words, first-hand accounts of the beneficial uses of guns aren't good enough, only body bags in the morgue should be considered when drafting up policies about gun ownership.

Perhaps the greatest cause for concern in Corlin's speech is his rather hazy understanding of the facts and history of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment. He said,

With the American gun manufacturers producing more than 4.2 million new guns per year — and imports adding another 2.2 million annually — you'd think the market would be saturated. But that's why they have to sell gun owners new guns for their collections — because guns rarely wear out. Hardly anyone here is driving their grandfather's 1952 Plymouth. But a lot of people probably have their grandfather's 1952 revolver. So, gun manufacturers make guns that hold more rounds of ammunition, increase the power of that ammunition, and make guns smaller and easier to conceal.

Corlin's most outrageous statement was:

Now, we don't regulate guns in America. We do regulate other dangerous products like cars and prescription drugs and tobacco and alcohol — but not guns.

We don't regulate guns? Granted, you might have to crack open a basic book on the history of firearms to realize that 90 percent of the guns and ammo sold today are based on designs dating from the World War I era, but to claim that firearms are completely free of regulation indicates a monumental ignorance of the Byzantine bureaucratic process which Americans have to navigate today in order to even think about buying a gun legally.

Once Corlin got over the anti-gun hyperbole, he proceeded to detail what he thinks the AMA should do about this "public health crisis" caused by too many guns. According to him, the AMA will put their efforts into studying the following questions:

  • How do kids with guns get their weapons?
  • Do trigger locks work?
  • What can we do to reduce accidental, self-inflicted gun injuries?
  • What are the warning signs of workplace or school shootings?
  • During which hours of the week and in what specific parts of town (down to individual blocks — not just neighborhoods) do the shootings occur?
  • Do we need to work with Police Departments to change patrolling patterns based on these data?
  • And finally, the realization that the answers to these questions are apt to be different from one town to the next.

Unfortunately, Corlin left some very important questions unasked:

  • How many families are spared violence and tragedy each year by the presence of a defensive firearm in the home?
  • How many women save themselves from rape or assault by simply demonstrating the willingness to put up an effective resistance?
  • How many children are not kidnapped, tortured or molested because their parents have the means to fight off an assailant if necessary?
  • How many people can sleep securely in their homes knowing that armed police officers are on patrol on the streets of their neighborhood?

Of course, any researcher or scientist worth his or her lab coat will tell you that such questions are extremely difficult to answer, because a crime that is prevented is a statistic that doesn't exist — or, as they say in the world of science, you can't prove a negative. Unfortunately, the AMA's new president seems to have lost sight of this basic scientific principle, and instead has chosen to view every gun as a part of an "epidemic" that needs to be cured.

According to Corlin, the data collected by the American Medical Association will be used to help create safer products, and will help keep guns out of the hands of children — both very laudable goals. He criticizes advocates of the Second Amendment for blocking what he considers "reasonable efforts" to simply collect data and evaluate statistics. He even claims:

Our mission is not to abolish all guns from the hands of our fellow citizens. We're not advocating any limitations on hunting or the legitimate use of long guns, or for that matter, any other specific item of gun control. And we won't even be keeping a scorecard of legislative victories against guns in Congress and in the statehouses. One of the ways we will do this is to help assemble the data. Current, consistent, credible data are at the heart of epidemiology. What we don't know about violence — and guns — is literally killing us.

Objective, scientific data about guns and their use in this country might, in fact, help engineers, legislators and gun owners keep guns out of the wrong hands and make the guns of the future even safer than they are today. On the other hand, one-sided, incomplete and skewed figures will do nothing but cloud the issue further and convince gun owners that all doctors and researchers are out to do nothing but trample their Constitutional rights.

Gun owners can only hope that, in this case, the medical experts in the AMA will take a long, hard look at the situation before prescribing an unnecessary and possibly harmful "cure."


© 2001 Scott Farrell

Constitution at Troynovant
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