'60 Minutes' Lets Anti-Gun
Docs Distort Issue
by Carl Limbacher
It didn't take CBS's "60 Minutes" long
to join gun-grabbing liberals and their media allies and climb on
the panic wagon following last Monday's Justice Department action
reversing decades of official government policy on the meaning of
the Second Amendment.
The Justice Department told the Supreme Court for
the first time late Monday that the Constitution "broadly protects
the rights of individuals" to own firearms.
The reaction was fast and furious among the radicals
seeking to disarm Americans and gut the Second Amendment, which
protects their right to self-defense.
Said Michael D. Barnes, president of the
Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Justice Department's
position could undermine existing gun laws, making them more difficult
to defend in court and making it easier for judges to declare them
"The Justice Department now will invite federal
judges to make their own judgments about whether the gun law at
issue is 'reasonable,'" Barnes told the Los Angeles Times.
Not to be left behind, "60 Minutes" rushed
into the fray last night with a program that opened with a story
about the dispute between medical groups over the legitimacy of
doctors asking patients if they keep guns in their homes.
Morley Safer opened the broadcast by noting
that the subject of an individual's right to own guns is a controversial
subject. "But to a majority of American doctors, guns have
become more than a constitutional argument; they've become a health
Safer's assertion that "a majority of Americans
doctors" think guns are a health issue parrots the line being
promoted by the American Medical Association and a coalition of
medical associations. Not once does Safer question that probably
dubious claim, but in introducing Dr. Timothy Wheeler, a
foe of those groups, he hastens to tell viewers that Wheeler's Doctors
for Responsible Gun Ownership "represents only a handful
of doctors, about 800."
Safer said that "a growing number of [doctors]
are no longer just asking patients if they smoke or drink or diet
and exercise, they're asking if there's a gun in the house. Guns,
they believe, are hazardous to our health."
Once again, Safer fails to explain how many doctors
are asking that question - he just cites "a growing number."
Growing from what? Ten to 20? Thirty to 40?
The doctors, he went on to say, know that guns are
a health hazard, because they're "on the front lines, dealing
every day with the damage done. ... [E]ach year they try to save
the lives of the 90,000 people who are shot. Sixty thousand survive,
some of them damaged for life. Another 30,000, including 4,000 children
and teenagers, die."
While Safer is recounting these alleged facts, the
camera shows a bloody emergency room scene that may or may not show
He introduces a woman doctor who is chief of general
pediatrics at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital. The doctor, who admits
she wants a total ban on gun ownership, says she routinely asks
patients if they have guns at home.
Safer reports that "Twelve medical associations,
representing more than 300,000 doctors across the country, have
formed a coalition urging doctors to treat guns as a health issue."
Once again, he supplies no information about how many of those 300,000
doctors agree with the coalition's position on guns.
He then presents one Dr. Jeremiah Barondess,
who heads Doctors Against Handgun Injury, who hastens to
say that "we need to be forceful with the argument that we
are not invading patients' privacy."
"We ask people how much they smoke, how much
they drink, we ask people about sexual practices, we ask people
about a lot of things that I think are good deal more intimate than
whether you keep a handgun in your house," Barondess said.
"Doctors, I think, not only have a legitimate interest in this,
I don't see how they can turn away from a cause that produces 30,000
deaths a year."
He added, "Counsel [patients] or ask them how
securely the guns are stored. Inform them a little bit about the
risks of having a gun in the home - the risks are calculable, the
risks are not trivial. The risk of suicide with a gun in the home
is five times as high as if there isn't one. The risk of homicide
today is a little weaker - increases about threefold."
Safer fails to ask for proof of these figures.
Only after allowing the proponents to make an emotion-based
case does Safer allow Dr. Wheeler to make his points.
Asked why doctors shouldn't ask patients about gun
ownership, Dr. Wheeler said that it is clear that "these physicians
are working from a political agenda against gun owners and therefore
that question becomes inappropriate. Any doctor who asks a patient
an intrusive and politically motivated question about guns at home
is committing an ethical-boundary violation and that doctor should
Wheeler quoted an article in which Dr. Barondess
wrote that "ideally, handguns should be banned completely but
we recognize that this strategy is not currently politically feasible."
Safer allows Barondess, who has claimed he does
not want to ban guns, to say that "I don't think it makes any
difference what my personal view is about this. There is a coalition
which contains most American physicians, who think it would be good
if less people got killed and injured with handguns, and I think
that's an absolutely unexceptional position, especially for doctors."
Of course, most American doctors think it would
be good if fewer people got killed with handguns. Who doesn't? But
that's a long way from saying that most American physicians think
it's fine and dandy to pry into their patients' gun ownership. Safer
allows him to get away with this blatant non sequitur.
That's not the case with Dr. Wheeler, however. When
Wheeler says research proves that the number of people saved by
guns is far greater than lives lost and adds that "there are
more than a dozen criminology studies that show anywhere from 600,000
to 2.5 million instances each year in which Americans use firearms
to defend themselves against violent attack," Safer feigns
"Two and a half million?" he asks, obviously
He goes immediately to the woman doctor from Mt.
Sinai, who says "I've seen those data. I'm not convinced by
the data. I'm much more convinced by the data that shows that the
presence of a gun is a hazard to those in that home."
Safer made no attempt to question how she could
simply deny the legitimacy of a number of research studies which
show that Wheeler's figures are accurate.
Statistics from the National Crime Victimization
Survey (NCVS) by the Census Bureau, for example, indicate that
at minimum 65,000 crimes are stopped or prevented annually by armed
citizens, usually without a shot fired. Thirteen other studies estimate
that far more crimes - between 764,00 and several million - are
thwarted by men and women with their own firearms.
For this woman to ignore such data while focusing
only on the many fewer deaths caused by firearms - accidental or
criminal - is like a physician mentioning only the undesirable side
effects of a drug that occur for a few, ignoring its positive overall
The Centers for Disease Control's own statistics
indicate that firearms are rather far down the roster: Deaths and
injuries from swimming pools and falls from ladders annually outnumber
those from firearms. Accidental firearm deaths have been declining
steadily for nearly 100 years and are now at an all-time low.
Said Safer, "Each side dismisses the other's
statistics as worthless," equating the woman's flat-out denial
of the established research, without a shred of proof the studies
were wrong, with Dr. Wheeler's study-based facts.
Said Wheeler: "Clearly the criminologists are
the experts when it comes to gun research, not doctors."
To which Safer said, "Doctors are the experts
on treating the misuse of firearms."
"Let's be clear," Wheeler shot back. "Doctors
are experts in treating injury and illness. Doctors are not experts
in criminology. Doctors are not experts in the mechanics of firearms
and safety mechanisms, and doctors are certainly not experts in
gun safety education. They should leave those areas alone and concentrate
on what they're supposed to do, which is take care of sick people
and try to save lives if possible."
After speaking approvingly of a CDC effort to set
up a national database for statistics dealing with gun-related injuries,
Safer asked Dr. Wheeler how he could oppose such a measure. Wheeler
explained that such a database would inevitably become a database
of gun ownership.
"Physicians are justified in counseling people
on the risks and hazards that we encounter in life," Wheeler
explained. "That's part of our job. It is not our job to engage
in a political assault on a fundamental right of our patients."
As might be expected, Safer gave the last word to
Dr. Barondess, who said, "Ninety percent of American physicians
think this is a public health issue. Dead is dead, that's a clinical
matter. And being shot and seriously injured is also a clinical
And once again, he let the good doctor get away
with that 90 percent figure without documenting it.
Safer missed a great opportunity to spring the kind
of trap on Dr. Barondess that "60 Minutes" is notorious
for springing on conservatives unlucky enough to end up in its sights.
He could have quoted Steven Milloy, author
of the book "Junk Science Judo," who pointed out that
"the ranks of firearms owners produce about 1,000 accidental
deaths each year. That amounts to 0.0000167 accidental deaths per
Gun owners groups, he added, "have zero to
do with criminal misuse of firearms."
Doctors, on the other hand, "account for 120,000
accidental patient deaths per year," a figure that is often
quoted in none other than the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Physicians, first heal thyselves.