By Chien-Wen Tseng, M.D.
The following editorial was published in the Tuesday, May 9, 2000 edition of the Seattle Times.
On Feb. 29, a 6-year-old Michigan boy shot his first grade classmate and killed her in front of other children. The myth is that only non-gun owners grieved in their hearts that day and gun-owners looked the other way.
Some gun owners and non-gun owners may be faced off in a shootout between the constitutional right to bear arms and the wish to ban all guns. But not all are. Responsible gun owners and non-gun owners have often stood on common ground ? that of gun safety. We simply have not looked at or talked to each other. What is gun safety? Who is responsible?
As family doctors at University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, my colleagues and I wished to learn about gun safety as a health issue for our patients. We conducted a survey at the University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt Family Medical Center to see what we could learn about gun ownership and safety in our own back yard.
- That one in seven our patients and one in four of our doctors and physicians assistants reported having a gun at home. These local statistics reflect surveys in 17 other states that show fully 30 percent to 57 percent of their citizens owned guns.
- In Washington state, any resident 21 years or older without a prior felony or domestic-violence conviction can purchase a gun after a five-day background check. For $60, a 5-year concealed weapons permit will allow a holder to carry a gun in a handbag or pocket into most public places, including churches.
- To obtain a license for hunting animals, federal laws require a minimum 10-hour gun safety class for those born after 1972. These hunter education classes cost only $5 and can be taken by children.
- No gun experience or safety training is currently required to use a gun in personal defense in an owner?s house or in public.
- One-third of the patients with guns surveyed at our clinic reported no gun safety training.
- In our clinic, one in five patients with guns and kids said the gun was unloaded and unlocked. Over half of all out patients with guns kept them unlocked, and one in four kept them loaded as well. National statistics show that one in 10 households with kids and guns have the weapon loaded and unlocked.
In general, research shows that guns increase, not decrease, the health risk of gun owners: risk of domestic homicide increases three times when one has a gun, and suicide increases fivefold if a gun is present in the house.
A published study showed that when guns are bought for self-protection, they are 22 more times more likely to be used to kill someone the owner knows than to be used against strangers in self-defense.
We need to start changing these statistics. How? We can look at gun-safety training for all gun owners, and as physicians we can begin talking to our patients about gun safety just as we do about bicycle helmets, safety belts and immunizations to ensure their health.
While we initially were not aware of gun-safety classes in the community, we found the opposite when we called firing ranges and gun shops in the Puget Sound area. While we are led to believe that all gun owners resist gun-safety classes, most gun shops were able to direct us to some excellent gun-safety classes for $15 to $180. Several shops recommended taking a course before deciding to buy a gun.
All guns should be stored in a safe, locked place. Only in this way can guns be kept away from children, irresponsible visitors or criminals looking for a weapon.
Although all parents should talk to their children about gun safety, a 6-year-old child could not be expected to grasp the consequences. Many gun-owners consider a gun safety box and a trigger lock a moral imperative and reject the idea that guns must be loaded and unlocked at the night stand to be of any use in personal defense.
Gun manufacturers must be responsible for gun safety. While one manufacturing company will now put trigger locks on all their guns, seven others have filed a lawsuit saying that requiring such safety devices is an illegal conspiracy to restrain trade. Yet, car ignition keys and safety belts are now accepted standards in the automobile industry.
In one study, 64 percent of gun owners surveyed favored government regulation of gun design and 80 percent were for childproofing all new handguns.
Family doctors and other health-care providers need to educate themselves to screen for gun ownership and talk about gun safety in a nonjudgmental manner. Fully half of our clinic patients said doctors should counsel on gun safety, but only 6 percent said they had ever been asked. We also found nationally that only one-third of all pediatric and one-sixth of all family medicine training programs offer formal education in gun safety.
What does all this mean for those who own guns and for their neighbors and friends who don?t? That we need to talk. How does a non-gun owner feel in a grocery store knowing that the person in line in back of them has the legal right to carry a concealed handgun?
We need to start a dialogue and drop our stereotypes of each other and instead focus on gun safety as a common ground:
- All gun purchases should have background checks and waiting periods.
- All gun owners should have safety training as hunters are required to have.
- All guns should be stored in a safe, locked place where children and others who don?t own them cannot get to them.
- Gun manufacturers should be required to sell guns with safety devices like trigger locks.
- Physicians need to be trained to ask about gun ownership and to counsel on gun safety without judging their patients as close-minded gun owners.
Gun owners and non-gun owners are our neighbors and friends. We all, therefore, have a responsibility to be concerned about gun safety: gun owners and non-gun owners, parents, health-care providers, educators, gun makers, gun shops, the NRA and all elected officials.
Guns are a health issue for us all. If we accept that seat belts and immunizations prevent unnecessary death and illness, then we can accomplish the same for gun safety without violating constitutional rights. The goal becomes closer if we talk about what is gun safety and we all take responsibility for it.
Dr. Chien-Wen Tseng is a University of Washington third-year family practice resident working at the UW Family Medical Center at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt in Seattle. She and other UW third-year family practice residents conducted the gun safety survey.