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Gary Meader / Forum News Service

Medical organizations call for more gun controls, but not all physicians agree

DULUTH -- People in his profession have good reason to be concerned about gun violence, Dr. Ray Christensen says.

“We have to fix everybody up that gets shot,” said Christensen, a Moose Lake physician who is also an associate dean at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus. “There’s a lot of people that don’t die but that are maimed for life.”

Between deaths (38,000) and injuries (85,000), well more than 100,000 Americans suffer directly from gunshot violence each year, according to the American Medical Association. The numbers prompted the AMA in 2016 to call gunshot violence a public health crisis. In 2018, the physicians’ group called for a number of gun control measures, including banning assault-style weapons and increasing the legal age to purchase firearms and ammunition from 18 to 21.

Jumping on board, the Minnesota Medical Association set up a workshop on gunshot violence to take place on Jan. 31 in St. Paul.

The increased advocacy is a welcome development, said state Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, who is also a doctor serving as a hospitalist at Hennepin County Medical Center.

“In the last year, the Minnesota Medical Association, after a long period of caution on this issue, jumped in with both feet and began to advocate for gun violence solutions,” he said.

Dissenting voice

But not all doctors are on board with the effort. Dr. Arthur Z. Przebinda, a diagnostic imaging specialist in Los Angeles, leads an organization called Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership. His response to the AMA’s position on the issue is unequivocal.

“They twist the data,” Przebinda said in a telephone interview. “We look at the data that’s there, and the facts are on our side.”

Przebinda argued that the AMA has an “anti-gun bias” seen in the way it talks only of gun-related deaths. More homicides are committed by fists than by rifles, he said. He submitted numbers to support that claim, an FBI report on “the total number of murders for which supplemental data were received” in U.S. states and territories. In 2015, for instance, the report comprises 561 murders, of which 10 were attributed to rifles and 25 to “hands, fists, feet, etc.” However, the total number of firearms-related murders in the data was 380.

That report has nothing to say about suicides, but in a telephone conversation, Przebinda argued that suicides shouldn’t be part of the discussion. While every suicide is tragic, he said, those who choose to take their lives would find a way to do so, regardless of whether a gun was available.

“We are vehemently opposed to gun control,” Przebinda said of his organization.

Is it their lane?

Przebinda endorsed a Nov. 7 tweet from the National Rifle Association that read, “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

But that comment only stirred up doctor sentiment on the issue, Klein said.

“I think a flame into the tinder box was when the NRA tweeted out that we should stay in our lane,” he said. “And I think a lot of people who deal with bloody hands every day, with gun violence victims, took very personal and professional offense at that, and that mobilized our community tremendously.”

Christensen was among them.

“I stand with the AMA,” he said. “And it is our lane, I don’t care what the NRA says.”

Christensen’s perspective comes from someone who is no stranger to firearms.

“I’m a farm boy,” he said. “I had a single-shot .22 and a BB gun that would shoot one at a time. And you either hit it or you missed it. Guns were part of our lives and man, they’re just — nobody was shooting each other. The only time was accidentally in the woods once in a while. But it’s completely changed.”

Dr. Douglas Wood, the president of the Minnesota Medical Association, is calling for “common-sense solutions to deal with firearm-related injuries and deaths.”

Although the death toll is lower in Minnesota than in many states, death by firearms is still the second-leading cause of death in the state for young people (ages 10-19), said Wood, who practices at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

It approaches the leading cause of death for that age group: motor vehicle deaths.

“We try to prevent motor vehicle deaths by better design of cars and roads, mandating seat-belt use and limiting cellphone use, as well as how we license teen drivers,” Wood wrote in an email. “So it only makes sense that we would be as smart in trying to reduce the toll of gun violence with public health and regulatory interventions.”

In the Legislature

In his role as a legislator, Klein is advocating two measures related to gun violence this session, he said. One would mandate universal background checks for gun purchases. The other would establish a “red flag law,” providing the means for guns to be removed from a home in certain situations.

“The devil in the details on that one is what’s the due process?” Klein said.

Six states have passed red flag laws, and they are being considered in 22 other states, according to the website independent.org.

In the longer term, Klein said, he hopes to see a revision in state law that prohibits the Department of Health from gathering gun ownership data for the purpose of public health-related research.

“I’ve spoken with epidemiologists in the Department of Health, and they feel that would be helpful for them to be able to gather that data in a de-identified way,” Klein said.

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