Dr. William Begg wiped away tears as he pleaded with Congress on Wednesday to help rescind laws that limit medical research into gun deaths and that restrict doctors from asking patients about guns in their homes.
Begg’s testimony highlighted a growing battle between some doctors and some gun advocates over whether federal health dollars should be spent on research into gun violence, and on whether doctors should counsel their patients about gun safety.
Medical groups have been complaining for years about restrictions on the research. And now 101 doctors from Newtown, Conn., have started their own group to try to influence both legislation and, perhaps, the U.S. culture itself.
“We are being intimidated not to discuss gun violence as a public health issue,” Begg, emergency medical services director at Danbury Hospital, 10 miles from Newtown, said in testimony to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence.
Begg was working in his hospital’s emergency department on Dec. 14 when Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 small children at Sandy Hook Elementary School using his mother’s assault rifle and other weapons. He has begun speaking out, with other doctors, against what they see as efforts to keep them from doing their utmost to prevent gun violence.
“Allow me as a medical doctor, when I see a patient and I talk to them about the risks of excess alcohol, or tobacco use, or safe sex, morbid obesity, seat belts, texting and driving, can I talk to them about the risk of gun violence, please?” Begg asked.
Begg asked Congress to ban assault weapons, high capacity ammunition magazines and semi-automatic rifles. “People say the overall number of assault weapons deaths is small. Please don’t say that to the people of Tucson or Columbine or Aurora or Virginia Tech and don’t tell that to the people of Newtown,” he said to applause from the audience in the hearing room.
“This is a tipping point. And this is a public health issue.”
Begg referred to legislation in Florida – rescinded after a judge ruled against it — that would have pulled the medical licenses of doctors who tried to discuss gun safety with patients and then fined $10,000. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical groups all oppose such legislation – and they had been calling even before the Connecticut shootings for more research on gun violence.
In 1996, after a particularly critical report on gun deaths in the United States, Ark. Rep. Jay Dickey sponsored an amendment that removed $2.6 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget, which was the precise amount the agency had spent on firearms studies. It hasn’t published a gun study since.
President Barack Obama earlier this year issued a memorandum directly ordering the CDC and other federal agencies to do gun research. But groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists say more needs to be done to ensure that medical professionals can have a hand in compiling statistics on gun deaths, can talk to patients about the dangers of firearms, and can speak out about their findings publicly.
Pediatrician Dr. Greg Dworkin agrees. He and about 100 other doctors from the Newtown area, Begg among them, have started a group called United Physicians for Newtown.
“We, the physicians, felt that we needed to do something and we needed to do it in a way that was consistent with our own profession,” Dworkin said in a telephone interview.
“We got together as physicians to see if there was something we could agree on, knowing the whole issue of how to prevent violence like this is not so simple.”
As in any community, the doctors in Newtown – who had begun calling one another and moving into place to help within minutes of learning about the shootings – have a range of political views.
“Newtown is a rural area,” Dworkin said. It’s full of hunters and sports shooting enthusiasts. Some people even have backyard gun ranges. The doctors were sensitive to fears that peoples’ guns might be taken away from them.
But there was plenty they did agree on.
“We felt that as a first principle, we want to speak up as physicians (and say) that research on violence, gun violence, violence against children should be done,” he said.
“We agreed mental health should be part of this. We agreed there is a culture of violence,” he added.
“We agreed we had to take a stand about gun safety.”
Universal background checks, assault weapons bans and bans on high capacity-ammunition magazines all won wide support from the doctors, he said.
And they wanted to keep party politics out of it. “But it is reasonable for physicians and professional health workers to be allowed to discuss this,” Dworkin said.
“We are talking about a registry of injuries,” he added. After the Sept. 11 attacks, public health officials started a registry of illnesses among people exposed to toxic dust as the World Trade Centers collapsed. There needs to be something similar for firearms injuries, the group agreed. “It’s a public health issue,” Dworkin says.
Dworkin, himself a blogger for the Daily Kos, says members of the group want to speak publicly – at hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, for instance.
Begg reeled off the statistics.”If you actually own a gun in your home because you think it is going to make you safer, let me give you some facts,” he told the committee hearing.
“Women are five times more likely be killed by a spouse if there’s a gun in the house. That’s a real study. If you have a gun in the house you are five times as likely to die of suicide, 20 times as likely to die of unintentional gun death.”
Research like this can only inform the argument, Begg, Dworkin and the other doctors of Newtown argue.