The Prairie Doc Perspective

On gun violence, ethics, and pheasant hunting

By Richard P. Holm MD

News of the Newtown massacre brings me, at once, to an odd mixture of thoughts: of horrible gun injuries I’ve personally seen in the emergency room; of concepts of medical ethics that could give direction to our country on this controversial issue; and of cherished memories of hunting pheasants with my dad.

Medical ethics teaches four simple and balanced virtues: do good, don’t do harm, base treatment on careful scientific study, and respect peoples choices. The last, also known as the autonomy principle, is to value every individual’s right to self-direction, free choice, and independence. This, by the way, is the crux of the gun control argument.

Medical ethicists teach us that we should endeavor to balance all of these virtues, realizing not one is more important than another, and one alone can be dangerous. For example I have prescribed medicine trying to do some good, without enough careful study, and then seen unintended harms.

Back to the Newtown massacre: currently more than 31,000 US residents die each year from firearms, mostly from suicide, accidents, and in the inner city from gang war. We’ve made balanced laws about motor vehicle injury prevention that have saved millions of lives; can we do it with guns?

First we should gather all the facts about gun violence so we don’t cause unintended consequences, and all the while respecting people’s freedoms. Unfortunately I have recently learned that starting in 1996 every effort to study the subject of gun injury has been completely squelched.

It started with the House removing $2.6 million from the budget of the National Center for Injury Prevention at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and adding restrictive language forbidding the funding for research into the topic. This and the repercussion that spread throughout Washington, flat-out dried up any government-funded research on gun injury. We are left now with 17 years of no research, ignoring the value of careful study, because of some misguided effort to worship at the alter of autonomy.

Something should and can be done to reduce gun injury to our family of humanity, without unintended consequences, and with respect to our freedoms. But we have to have facts to do it. It doesn’t matter the issue, whether it be swimming pool safety, hand-washing, flu vaccinations, or gun safety: we need to have the facts to not only protect people but also to protect freedoms, including a pheasant hunt with your Dad.

Neither Congress nor any government organization should ever restrict or suppress the honest search for information.

Dr. Rick Holm wrote this Prairie Doc Perspective for “On Call®,” a weekly program where medical professionals discuss health concerns for the general public.  “On Call®” is produced by the Healing Words Foundation in association with the South Dakota State University Journalism Department. “On Call®” airs Thursdays on South Dakota Public Broadcasting-Television at 7 p.m. Central, 6 p.m. Mountain. Visit us at OnCallTelevision.com. 

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