Frustrated U.S. doctors push harder against gun violence

Tragedies including school shootings and the Las Vegas massacre have spurred a 'new sense of urgency,' outgoing president of the American Medical Association says.

Outgoing American Medical Association president says there's 'a new sense of urgency'

In this file photo, crosses representing victims of gun violence stand outside Collins Academy High School in Chicago — the same city in which the American Medical Association is holding its annual meeting. (Martha Irvine/Associated Press)

With frustration mounting over lawmakers' inaction on gun control, the American Medical Association (AMA) on Tuesday pressed for a ban on assault weapons and came out against arming teachers as a way to fight what it calls a public health crisis.

At its annual policymaking meeting, the largest physicians group in the U.S. bowed to unprecedented demands from doctor-members to take a stronger stand on gun violence — a problem the organization says is as menacing as a lethal infectious disease.

The action comes against a backdrop of recurrent school shootings, everyday street violence in the nation's inner cities, and rising U.S. suicide rates.

"We as physicians are the witnesses to the human toll of this disease," Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency medicine specialist at Brown University, said at the meeting.

AMA delegates voted to adopt several of nearly a dozen gun-related proposals presented by doctor groups that are part of the AMA's membership. They agreed to:

  • Support any bans on the purchase or possession of guns and ammunition by people under 21.
  • Back laws that would require licensing and safety courses for gun owners and registration of all firearms.
  • Press for legislation that would allow relatives of suicidal people or those who have threatened imminent violence to seek court-ordered removal of guns from the home.
  • Encourage better training for physicians in how to recognize patients at risk for suicide.
  • Push to eliminate loopholes in laws preventing the purchase or possession of guns by people found guilty of domestic violence, including expanding such measures to cover convicted stalkers.

Many AMA members are gun owners or supporters, including a doctor from Montana who told delegates about learning to shoot at a firing range in the basement of her middle school as part of gym class. But support for banning assault weapons was overwhelming, with the measure adopted in a 446-99 vote.

"There's a place to start and this should be it," Dr. Jim Hinsdale, a San Jose, California, trauma surgeon, said before the vote.

'Congress fails to act'

Gun violence is not a new issue for the AMA; it has supported past efforts to ban assault weapons; declared gun violence a public health crisis; backed background checks, waiting periods and better funding for mental health services; and pressed for more research on gun violence prevention.

But Dr. David Barbe, whose one-year term as AMA president ended Tuesday, called the number of related measures on this year's agenda extraordinary and said recent violence, including the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the Las Vegas massacre, "spurred a new sense of urgency ... while Congress fails to act."

"It has been frustrating that we have seen so little action from either state or federal legislators," he said. "The most important audience for our message right now is our legislators, and second most important is the public, because sometimes it requires public pressure on the legislators."

While it is no longer viewed as the unified voice of American medicine, the AMA has more clout with politicians and the public than other doctor groups. It counted more than 243,000 members in 2017, up slightly for the seventh straight year. But it represents less than one-quarter of the nation's million-plus physicians.

AMA members cited U.S. government data showing almost 40,000 deaths by gun in 2016, including suicides, and nearly 111,000 gun injuries. Both have been rising in recent years.

By comparison, U.S. deaths from diabetes in 2016 totalled almost 80,000; Alzheimer's, 111,000; and lung disease, 155,000. The leading causes of death were heart disease, with 634,000 deaths in 2016, and cancer, with about 600,000.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645

Chat: crisisservicescanada.ca

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone:  1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. 

Here are some warning signs: 

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.