Speak Your Piece: A Doctor’s View of Guns
If humans were perfect, guns wouldn’t be a problem. Until then, we need better safeguards.
Gregory Rec/Portland Press HeraldA 2-year-old watches his father during a gun rally in Wiscasset, Maine, in March 2013. Dr. Myers wonders whether a holstered sidearm is more likely to protect a child or hurt it because of an accident.
First the usual disclaimers. I grew up with as many guns as hammers in the house. When we had to move into the city from the Ozarks when I was 11, I improvised a place in the basement where I could shoot targets with a .22. My first “real” purchase when I started working a year later was a Mossberg target rifle. I’ve hunted things from squirrel to moose, though I decided it wasn’t very sporting. In the last few years I’ve had to put down various farm animals.
In my medical work, I’ve practiced less and managed more than a lot of docs, but the following is a sampling of my experience with shootings.
As an intern I was putting an agitated drunk to bed with the assistance of the policeman who brought him to the emergency room. Suddenly the policeman’s revolver was in the drunk’s hand in my face. I grabbed the drunk’s wrist, pushed it down and away. The first shot hit a 13-year-old girl passing in the hall. The second shot hit the framing in the wall, thereby missing my fellow intern in the next examining room. That day I learned to be skeptical of the “good guy with a gun” theory.
A few months later a teenage girl was brought into the same hospital. She had been sitting on a log teaching a Bible class to younger kids when she had an apparent seizure and tumbled backward down a brushy, rocky slope. She was unresponsive, had lots of scratches and seemed flaccid on one side. Her skull films showed a .22 slug just on the edge of the film about halfway down her neck. Her spinal cord was cut on one side. The police found a person who had been hunting squirrel over a half mile away. There I learned it really isn’t safe to hunt in a populated area with even the smallest caliber rifle.
In the Army I was impressed that young, fit, well trained MPs traveling in pairs were required to leave their sidearms at the front desk when they came into the hospital lest a disturbed patient grab a pistol. That made sense to me after the incident with the drunk. Compare that requirement for military police with the risk of a person who has taken a one-day course to qualify for a “concealed weapon” permit. I believe an amateur carrying a pistol is a public hazard.
In my next job the police brought the injured from both sides of a gang fight to the same emergency room. Soon friends of the patients were shooting at each other as everyone else in the area ducked around corners and under beds. In recent months I’ve often thought what a bad idea it would have been to add a couple “good guys with guns,” i.e., law abiding citizens with concealed carry permits, to that melee.
And there was the young teen who shot herself in the head with her dad’s pistol. Her suicide attempt failed, leaving her blind and badly brain damaged. Forty years later I still carry an image of her in my mind.
In my years up north lots of hunters and hikers thought a popular make single-action magnum revolver was what they needed for bear protection. Those sidearms were quite inadequate for bear, but people who were ignorant in the ways of such weapons managed to discharge them in their holsters, often destroying the artery, vein and nerve below the knee. In that time and place that meant amputation. I learned that the supposed protection was far more dangerous than the original hazard, a recurring conclusion in gun policy. My wife and I ended up hiking with two kids and jingle bells rather than keep a loaded weapon in a tent with the family.
A black bear was getting into the trash behind a mobile home most every night. Someone loaded a shotgun with large caliber buckshot and left it leaning against a wall. It fell over and went off. The load tore through the wall hitting a sleeping girl in the side of the head and neck. After the injury she was able to turn her head, wrinkle her brow and move one side of her face. She lived for the next 32 years on various kinds of ventilators. I was her doc for the first 10 of those years and friend for the rest. From her over those decades I learned more than I can summarize. For purposes of this column, though, the point is, don’t leave loaded guns around the house.
Lots of people say they’re keeping their gun for home protection. If it isn’t loaded and handy, it isn’t very protective. If it is loaded and handy, it’s a real threat to the family.
A 2 year old found his dad’s pistol. He was hugging it against his chest when he fired it. The slug went in the bulge of his belly and exited above his right knee. The bullet stayed just under the skin the whole way and did no serious damage. Even little kids find and fire guns.
Our regional newspaper recently carried a story about a family rally of proponents of the right to carry sidearms. The accompanying photo was taken from the level of the toddler who was making his way among all the legs, below exposed pistol grips in holsters, including his daddy’s. The holsters seemed to be designed for ready access rather than securely holding the weapons. That little boy is far more likely to be hurt than protected by his dad’s pistol.
Nobody wants to see kids shot. National solutions haven’t been forthcoming. Maybe local communities could try convening people of moderate position to see what measures they might suggest. Can anyone imagine reminders in church bulletins and convenience stores, “Are your guns locked up? Do you have the keys?”
Perhaps the only federal measure to come out of the recent bout of attention to gun violence will be lifting of the congressional prohibition on documentation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of patterns of gun deaths including the high rate of shootings within families.
It seems to me guns are like narcotics: essential in the right hands and situations. They require safeguards. Some people really get hooked on them.
If children and adults were infallible, and never got angry, depressed, drunk, curious, delusional, careless, childish, greedy, confused or jealous, guns wouldn’t be a problem.
Our choices are to perfect people, manage weaponry, or continue to maim and bury.
Wayne Myers is a retired pediatrician and rural medical educator. He directed the federal Office of Rural Health Policy from 1998 through 2000, and was president of the National Rural Health Association in 2003. He and his wife, JoAnn, farm in rural Maine. This piece originally appeared in Rural Monitor, published by the Rural Assistance Center.