The strange role of doctors in the gun debate

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted December 25, 2000

If you were going to choose a team of experts to help resolve the question of gun rights versus gun control, who would you pick?

Your first choice should be a good criminologist; then perhaps a police officer with extensive street experience. To analyze the cost of gun violence and the cost of gun control, you would choose an economist. An expert on the causes of suicide would be very helpful as would a skilled statistician to sort through the various studies.

You would probably not choose a doctor, yet a small number of doctors have assumed a large role in the anti-gun lobby. Various trauma surgeons, in particular, have asserted that their experience in treating gunshot wounds makes them experts on gun control legislation.

This is patently absurd. You wouldn't ask advice on traffic laws from someone who repairs damaged cars. There are experts who are trained to conduct scientific studies and recommend new traffic laws when needed.

Most doctors are predisposed to anti-gun thinking by their urban liberal upbringing. Treating numerous gunshot victims may exaggerate this existing mindset. Most Americans will never see a gunshot wound, but some trauma surgeons see so many that they begin to view the world as overwhelmed with gun violence. This skewed world view can result in a very human emotional urge to "do something" about the problem of gun violence. This same motive is commonly found in family members of gun violence victims; since the real causes of human violence are so complex, they must lash out at something simple like the type of weapon used. Doctors who treat these victims may be responding in much the same way.

Medical doctors who support political movements use their credibility as medical professionals to lend weight to a particular cause. This credibility comes from their training which teaches doctors to use the scientific method to diagnose and treat medical conditions. When physicians support a political cause, most people would assume that they are applying the same standards.

Unfortunately for these social activist doctors, all reputable research shows that gun control laws simply don't work. To support the anti-gun lobby, they must turn their backs on their scientific training and give in to their personal bias. This awkward situation led some doctors to carry out public health studies designed to produce anti-gun statistics. This is known as "results-oriented research" or "junk science".

These studies are distinguished by certain characteristics. The anti-gun researchers frequently choose small populations or geographic areas that they believe will produce the desired outcome. They ignore the fact that guns are often used to deter crime without shots being fired and they typically misrepresent the conclusions of earlier studies on which they are basing their own research. Their statistical analysis is always questionable and they sometimes refuse to make their raw data public to avoid close scrutiny. Perhaps the most striking characteristic is the way that the results are always turned into an anti-gun sound bite with an outlandish number representing the harm done by firearms.

The most famous of these studies is the one that declared firearms to be 43 times more likely to kill someone in the home than to kill an intruder. Like all of the anti-gun studies, this one has been dissected by numerous people who delight in pointing out the way in which the data were tortured to produce the desired results. A classic discussion of these flawed studies is "Guns in the Medical Literature - a Failure of Peer Review" by Edgar A. Suter, MD.

This wave of criticism may be partly responsible for some improvement in the quality of published articles. The Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, recently published a study by Ludwig and Cook which found that the much touted Brady Act had no effect on the national homicide rate.

Perhaps this marks a return to intellectual honesty that will convince anti-gun doctors to take a more logical look at the problem of gun violence. They should at least admit to the public and to their fellow doctors that their opinions on gun legislation have nothing to do with their medical credentials.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is a board member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws, on the web at:

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