63. Violence, Medical Research and Guns

November 2, 2020

I am a retired family doctor; have worked as an emergency department physician; later was an occupational medicine specialist; and still later a state hospital general, forensic and addiction psychiatrist, many of whose patients were murderers.  I have a certain amount of familiarity with violence.

In medicine, proficiency in the various specialized areas of medical knowledge is demonstrated by having passed the examinations of a certifying board, or, to a lesser extent, by having qualified by training and/or experience to be eligible to sit for those examinations whether or not they were taken.  In my case, during my forty years in medicine, I was board certified in three medical specialties, board eligible in two more, and appointed as a medical school Assistant Clinical Professor in two of the five.

Just after the Orlando nightclub rampage shooting in June of 2016, I exchanged thoughts on an internet discussion site with several friends.  One submitted, in free-verse form, an appeal about the Orlando shootings which I will reproduce here:

“I am not a father, but I mourn as Fathers’ Day nears, for:

“How does a father control his grief and rage, when a son or daughter will not be coming to share his day, or any future days…?

“How does a father act to protect his children from bigotry and violence?

“How does a father explain why it is so easy for anyone with a hate-filled heart to obtain a weapon of mass destruction?

“Fathers, mothers, children– take a step back, and then a giant leap forward:

“Banish all forms of discrimination, intolerance, indifference, and yes–

“Ban assault rifles.”

I’ll share with you my response to him: 

Well, I am the father of four grown children.  I feel a powerful empathy for the fathers of whom the author of the verse speaks.

I hadn’t, at the time of the event, followed the news of the tragedy in Orlando very closely, but I had picked up a few scraps of information from the TV being on while I was working around the house.  In some aspects, the case resembled the San Bernardino massacre, in which an assault rifle was used, widely claimed by anti-gun partisans to have been, “legally acquired”, by which they attempted to imply that already existing laws are not sufficiently plentiful or restrictive.

But the FBI, whom I personally heard initiate the assertion of “legally acquired” on live TV in the San Bernardino  case, was later proven to be wrong.  The obtaining of the weapons used in San Bernardino was already entirely illegal under three separate federal and California laws.  First:  they were purchased by a friend for two shooters who themselves could not have bought them.  This is called a “straw purchase” and is a federal crime.  Second:  Assault rifles are already illegal in California, and one defining characteristic of such a weapon is the push-button release of the magazine.  After purchasing rifles with fixed magazines, requiring a tool to remove the magazine, they were illegally modified to add a push-button release.  Third:  Magazines holding more than ten bullets are illegal in California, but the shooters obtained higher capacity magazines illegally, and used them in the crime.

What I am arguing is that what is lacking is not a sufficient number of laws, it is the enforcement of the 6,000 existing laws, and the enactment of laws that mandate reporting of individuals who are disqualified from gun ownership by mental illness or radical ideology, to the federal NICS database.  The enactment of more laws, while they will surely infringe the Constitutional rights of the law-abiding, will not, if past experience teaches us anything, significantly hamper Islamic terrorists or rampage shooters from obtaining weapons.

What little was known of the Orlando shooter in the days just after the crime, included the fact that he was a radical Islamic man who was also described as bipolar, and a violent spousal abuser.  He was the second member in as many years, of a tiny Florida mosque, who had undertaken a terrorist act.  The first had become a suicide bomber in Syria in 2014.

The father of the Orlando shooter is an Afghani who is reported to have been an angry and vocal supporter of the Taliban, both before coming to the U.S. and since.   The shooter himself, Omar Mateen, was thought to have been a regular attendee at the gay nightclub and is thought to have connected there with gay men.  One theory was that he may have suffered from the conflict between his proclivities and his religion, which is homicidally intolerant of homosexuality. 

Mateen had been taken into custody twice by the FBI because of his own ideological rants, but was found to have committed no crime for which he could be charged.

Once again, in the case of the Orlando shooting, we were the victims of the inherent fairness of our own culture, not of an insufficiency of laws.  As a wife-beating misdemeanant, Omar Mateen would have been prevented by federal and Florida law from purchasing a firearm.  The implication of the snippet of an interview of his ex-wife that I heard was that her family helped her get away from him after he became violent, but whether they notified the police was a question not asked in that interview.

As for the FBI, when they could find no proof of lawbreaking, they had to let him go.  Our laws protect those not found guilty of an existing crime in a court of law.  We don’t think it’s fair to take away the rights and freedoms of people not convicted of wrongdoing.  Wrong thinking is not a crime.

Unfortunately, the poetic recommendation of our on-line discussant, that we “banish” all forms of discrimination, intolerance, and even indifference, is decidedly un-American.  We can ban some kinds of discriminatory acts that we define as illegal, for example, discrimination on racial or religious grounds in housing or employment.  But we can’t ban beliefs, feelings or speech that is intolerant or discriminatory.  We cannot ban even these behaviors in people’s voluntary associations with one another.

In 2015 I read the entire Koran, word-for word, specifically looking for any of the expressions of religious tolerance or peaceful coexistence Islamic apologists claim it contains.  But after a very careful reading, I found the Koran to be unremittingly and violently intolerant of every religious belief but Islam as Mohammed defined it.  Nonetheless, we would be horrified if it were suggested to banish Muslims from the country.  Many find abhorrent even the idea of stopping Muslims or immigrants from certain countries from entering the U.S., even temporarily while better vetting processes are established…(e.g. processes that would have prevented Mateen’s Taliban-supporting father from coming here.)

The major disconnect, it seems to me, is between it being well known that a person is dangerous because of mental illness and/or malignant ideologically, and that concern being communicated to the people who maintain the “no-buy” list for firearms.  Again, fairness and concern for medical privacy play a major role.  A case in point is the GermanWings pilot who crashed a planeload of people into a mountain.   Many clinicians and airline officials knew he was dangerously ill and suicidal, but extreme German privacy laws and obsessive corporate privacy policies prevented that information from flowing to licensing authorities.

If we are to enhance prevention of these horrible crimes without trampling on the constitutional rights of, say, Muslims, or of one hundred and ten million law-abiding American gun owners, knowledge of such actual dangers, when they exist, must be communicated to the authorities who can do something about it.

The following Father’s Day I was indeed thinking not only of my own two boys and two girls, but of the fathers who had not been as lucky as I have been, to have their kids still with them.   Those young people slain in the Orlando gay nightclub in 2016 were not the victims of a shortage of laws, but of too many laws that have been poorly written, badly designed and inadequately enforced.

As far as the proposed Center for Disease Control (CDC) research is concerned, based as it is upon the hypothesis that political or insane rampages can usefully be defined as public health issues, it suffers certain contamination from the outset, by the political agenda of people who take the demonstrably absurd position that guns, themselves, are the root cause of violence.  This contamination is foreshadowed by the very linking of one word to the other in the proposed subject title:  GUN-VIOLENCE.

The error in this kind of thinking might be more easily seen in a different example.  Black race alone is actually four times more powerful as a predictor of violence than is gun ownership alone.  So what if one were to propose that the CDC study BLACK VIOLENCE?   Would not the bias in attributing causation be more obvious in this description of the problem?  Do you notice that in the previous administration many avoid mentioning ISLAMIC VIOLENCE?  Oh, dear, not very PC in the Obama White House.  Yet Vivek Murthy, appointed Surgeon General by President Obama, reportedly agreed with the president, in advance of the production of any research-based or statistical evidence, that Islam is incidental to violence, and guns are causal.

People who for whatever reason would like to see the world rid of guns, simply always draft laws into which that agenda is woven.  Though they fill their proposed “gun control” bills with outrageous and unnecessary abridgments and erosions of the Second Amendment, abridgments that will not stop the mentally ill and violent extremists from obtaining firearms, they characterize their proposed laws as “reasonable restrictions” and those who oppose them as extremist ‘gun nuts’.  To anti-gun ideologues, the political end justifies the dishonesty of the means.  It will be a distraction and a digression from achieving any scientific understanding of the problem of violence if that political faction is granted any influence, much less control, over any proposed CDC research process.


62. The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!

November 1, 2020

In the summer of 1949 when I was fifteen, for eight weeks I was a junior counselor at a farm camp in Vermont where I had been a camper for the previous six summers.  I taught sailing to 50 boys, including my two younger brothers, and three or four girls who were there to keep the camp owner’s daughter company for the summer.

The farm property was 360 acres and in addition to a piece of the shore of a mile-wide lake, there were hayfields, riding trails and a ring for our six horses, cows to milk, archery and rifle ranges, some clay tennis courts, vegetable gardens to tend, and a craft shop for those who wanted, for instance, to make their own yew longbows or fletch a quiver full of arrows.

In the farmhouse living room the director read stories about Robin Hood, or  Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain boys in the quarter hour of quiet time before each meal.  And every week, pushing aside the tables used by chess, checker and card players, it was in that fireplace room that we staged talent shows and sing-songs on Friday evenings.  Once a summer we put on a vaudeville show; and once a summer a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: HMS Pinafore or Trial by Jury. Late in the season, as the camp seeason was coming to a close, we put on an outdoor one-ring circus with side-shows, always during a weekend when parents were especially invited to visit.

The currency for the circus was dried navy beans, earned in the previous week by turning in pails of wild blueberries picked in the bushes that surrounded our hay fields, and in the forest clearings in which they flourished.  A large can full of berries earned a small paper cupful of beans to use as money at the circus.

The cook and her helpers turned the blueberries into pancakes and muffins, and with milk from the cows, using a hand-cranked ice cream churn charged with rock-salt and ice from the ice house, we made fresh homemade blueberry ice cream by the gallon.  After the circus the beans were collected, washed, soaked, cooked and made into Boston baked beans.

Out circus side shows were imaginative, amusing and sometimes educational.  The signage on one booth shouted “COME TROUGH THIS PORTAL  AND SEE THE EGRESS!”   Entering, the unwary found themselves outside the ropes and had to pay more beans to get into the circus again.  The campers being aged seven through fourteen, the booth always made money, and the boys never forgot that egress means exit.

The single ring, flanked by a freshly mown knoll from the slope of which spectators watched, featured various acts, including some fairly tame trick riding, for which dutiful parents applauded encouragingly.

Now, various groups at camp had their favorite activities.  Each camper signed up for three sessions a day.  But the activities could be fairly spread out, so there was a tendency to pick ones that were in some proximity to one another.   The riding stables and land activities were near the house, but the lake was about a three-quarter mile walk over a hill and  through the woods down to the lake.  So people who wanted to avoid having to rush to the next activity might pick, Riding, Archery and Tennis, or Sailing, Rowing and Canoeing.  

As a camper I had experience all of the activities, but had always been most drawn to the crystal clear water of Ray Pond, so I had become significantly less proficient at riding during my previous six years as a camper than my pals who would rather ride a horse than eat dinner.  Which was why I was very puzzled when Nancy Gore, older than me by three years and the daughter of the camp’s owners, came to me with the request that I learn a riding trick to perform in the circus, then still a couple of weeks away. 

I declined, but she was very persistent, and enlisted her two brothers, young adults and both senior counselors and camp managers, to convince me.  Still bewildered but outnumbered and outranked, I finally agreed.

What she wanted me to learn, was to ride standing barefoot, on the back of our only ‘quarter-horse’, Butch, a gentle brown and white piebald gelding, as he was cantered in a circle on a rope lead.  I had to learn a running mount to a bareback riding position, then carefully to get my feet under me and stand up.  I had never before ridden on a cantering horse standing up, nor even seen it done, but as it happened, it wasn’t all that difficult.  I also didn’t see why it would be that interesting, but she was satisfied.  She implied vaguely that something else would add to the spectacle, but wouldn’t elaborate.

On the day of the circus I showed up for my performance, as she had requested, a few minutes early.  I was a little nervous, but that soon turned to outright alarm when Nancy brought out the costume she intended  me to wear.  Which was a pink tutu and brassiere!  I was trapped and it was too late to back out. The audience was waiting, our riding instructor was beginning to trot Butch in his circle.  A nearby bush had been chosen for my dressing room.  

I stepped into the tutu and found the brassiere a bit tight for the breadth of my developing chest, but it worked because at least there was nothing else to fill it.

As I walked barefoot out of the bushes to the ring the crowd began to laugh and to applaud.  Somehow it had swelled in size and I gathered I was the only one who had not known what I would be wearing.  But somehow my inner clown took over and I waved, smiled and bowed my way out to my running vault onto the pony’s back.  The crowd went wild.

Charged with adrenalin, I managed to rise and stand where the cantering beast’s back began to broaden into its haunches and make it twice around the ring without falling off.  Rounding my arms into a circle above my head, in a burlesque of a ballet pose I even managed a tentative plie or two the second time around, before regaining my seat astride, then dismounting.  I have no recollection whether the pony had stopped or whether I managed a moving dismount.

As it turned out, of course, because of the hilarity of my costume, I hardly had to do anything at all to win a standing ovation.  And at least one of the reasons for selecting me for the job was clear at last.  Neither of the actual riding counselors, though they were far more expert riders, could have fit into the tutu.


61. Burning the Candle at Both Ends

November 1, 2020

[Ed.  This was written five years ago in June, and is just now emerging from the file of potential blog items.]

One of the most misunderstood idioms in Ameria is confusing because it was a metaphorical statement mistaken for a literal one.

The expression in question antedates the current age of electricity, when candles are used only for decorative purposes.  Though it is interpreted in this “new light” it actually derives from the days when candles were the only source of light.

My daughter gave me the key to something that has puzzled every child for the last hundred years.  Children are often very amusing to adults when they take things literally that are meant abstractly.  I recall being horrified at age seven when my favorite aunt was tearfully telling my mom that she was about to be fired from her job.  I thought they were going to burn her up!

The other evening I was chatting with my working daughter, the mother of two teen-aged boys, who was yawning with fatigue because she had been getting up before dawn to get the boys lunches and gear ready for school, and then staying up at night to finish up her lawyerly work.

“I’ve just been burning the candle at both ends,” she declared, explaining her inability to keep her eyes open.

And it hit my eighty-one-year-old mind for the very first time.  She was burning the candle at both of the dark ends of the day, not at the ends of the candle.  She was “burning the candle” for the light by which to do her work!

The expression is said to have originated in England, and it is now June and we are approaching the summer solstice.  At this season and in those latitudes working from dark to dark would have indicated an eighteen hour work day!

Searching the internet for the expression reveals images and definitions that indicate that nearly everyone  has first heard of “burning the candle at both ends” when they were so young as to have taken it literally.  Then of course Edna St. Vincent Millay, born at a time when she should have perceived the truer meaning, wrote her famous lines, 

My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — it gives a lovely light!

After which anyone would have been blinded to the the literal image by the brilliance of the poetic one.