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.