As some of my readers know, I am a public health physician. I recently had the opportunity to offer some remarks at a conference at the Yale School of Public Health on gun violence and public health. This Commentary is drawn from those remarks. I began by noting that when talking about this subject, the National Rifle Association is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. I noted at that conference that none of the other speakers, all of whom had government grant-funded research and intervention programs underway, mentioned the words “National Rifle Association.” All publicly funded, how could they? If one whiff, not of the gunshots that are so frequent in our society, but of criticism of the NRA coming from a publicly funded program got back to the NRA, giving its totally corrupting influence on the political process in our country, there goes that funding.
After all, recently some prudish Republican Congressman, supported by a bunch of running-scared Democrats, managed to get funds for the National Science Foundation reduced because a couple of years ago a staffer or two were caught watching porn on an office computer during office hours. As we fall further and further behind China in the realm of scientific research and applications, we can be secure in the knowledge that no porn will be tolerated on office time at the NSF.
I went on to note that from the public health perspective, in dealing with gun violence, having guns as widely made and sold as they are in the United States is like trying to deal with malaria while breeding mosquitoes. There are many causes of violence in our nation leading to injury and death but chief among them is widespread private gun ownership. In 2008, there were an estimated 30,000 gun deaths in our country, about half of them by suicide. The National Rifle Association is the principal protector of unlimited, unregulated private gun ownership in the US, along with a number of other organizations, like The Second Amendment Foundation. Their claim is that the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution provides for unfettered private gun ownership. That’s it and that’s that.
That’s an interesting argument when one examines the plain language of the Amendment: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Along with Justice Scalia, you might be surprised to know, I happen to be a big fan of strict constructionism when interpreting the Constitution. (Of course Scalia honors that commitment only in the breach, but that’s another story.) The Amendment is somewhat ambiguous to be sure. But in reading its plain language, it is quite obvious that it can mean only one of two things. One, it provides a right to the people, in the protection of the free state, to form well-regulated militias. Or two, it provides to individuals the right to bear arms, in a well-regulated system for the protection of the free state. But the NRA does not read it that way. And as is very well known, the NRA spends big bucks to elect candidates who agree with it.
It is interesting to note that no one knows where the bulk of the NRA’s money comes from that it so widely distributes. I have made inquiries to gun control organizations on this, and that information is simply not publicly available. Maybe it comes from the membership (but the sums they spend are truly huge), but maybe not. I did find it interesting that the list of corporate sponsors of a raffle to raise money for the Second Amendment Foundation included the gun manufacturers Remington, Sigarms, Bushmaster, Glock, Savage Arms, Smith and Wesson, Marlin, Otis, Brownells, the Sharps Rifle Company, and a number of others, but none other than gun manufacturers.
As is well known, the NRA interpretation of the Second Amendment as well as that of the Republican Party is not literal. They interpret it to mean that there is an individual right to “bear arms” without any regulation at all. They say that it means that anyone can own as many guns as they want to, for any purpose at all. Consider the words of Senator Lindsey Graham of the first secessionist state, South Carolina, one of their fiercest defenders. Talking about the relationship between the “No-fly” list and the possibility of limiting access to weapons by people placed on it, such as “The Times Square Wannabee Bomber,” he said: “I think you’re going too far here. . . . [W]hen the founders sat down and wrote the Constitution, they didn’t consider flying.” One wonders, if they were indeed establishing a right for anyone to own weapons without regulation. Just what they were talking about and what would they be talking about today? Of course, according to Graham’s reasoning, the President cannot be the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Air Force because it is not mentioned in the Constitution.
Wayne LaPierre, NRA Executive Vice-President, has actually taken a position that under the Second Amendment there can be no limits on “the right to keep and bear arms.” Gee, that is an interesting one. OK, Wayne, how about tanks? Modern tanks have guns, usually one fairly large cannon and one heavy machine gun, and they may as well have one anti-aircraft machine gun. According to LaPierre’s reasoning I guess that if someone wanted to have one of those they could, at least as far as the guns are concerned. No license, no registration, and no limits. But what about the vehicular part of the tank. Would one need to register it and have a license in order to drive it? While according to the presumed NRA position, there could be no liability from firing the cannon if no one were maimed or killed, what about liability from hitting someone while driving the tank? And would the owner have to pay for road damage? Tanks do tend to dig up pavements, donchaknow. OK, even the NRA might say, that’s going too far. OK then, how about artillery, from howitzers to bazookas to rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Or Stinger missiles. “Ooops! I was aiming at the black helicopter I’m sure I saw and happened to bring down an airliner with 300 passengers aboard. Sorry. I was simply operating within my Second Amendment rights.”
And so on and so forth. “Well,” the NRA might say (or they might not) “we don’t mean those kinds of weapons.” “Oh really,” one might reply, “you would regulate those? Well, friends, if you regulate one, you can regulate them all.” My point here is that in order to win this battle we have to go on the offensive. Statistics and public health logic won’t do it. This kind of argument is one starting point. Another is to demand to know what are the sources of funding of the gunners’ organizations. And the likely sources of funding are not just the gun manufacturers, but the gun dealers as well. These companies are the merchants of death. It is virtually impossible to buy guns legally in Mexico. It is estimated that 2000 guns per day, bought legally here, are being smuggled from the US to Mexico, to drug dealers fighting the “Drug War” there in order to send drugs here. That war has killed over 26,000 people since 2006. No wonder no one wants to end the “Drug War.” It’s just too profitable all around, and in the meantime the purveyors of the real drug killers, alcohol and tobacco, get off scot-free.
If the ownership of certain kinds of guns can be regulated, then the ownership of all kinds of guns can be regulated. If the major sources of funding for the NRA are indeed the manufacturers and the dealers, then it becomes a different kind of political war to be fought. As I learned at Yale oh so many years ago, politics and public health are intricately linked together. And this is all about public health and clinical medicine that has to deal with the wounded. As Dr. Rudolf Virchow, the 19th century German founder of the science of pathology, once said: “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale” (Sigerist, H., Medicine and Human Welfare, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941). That may be a bit of an overstatement, but to deal with the results of violence in our society, we must begin to take the fight against its facilitators to them, directly. Just remember: “Guns don’t kill people; People with guns kill people.”
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.