published Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Cleaveland: Powerless in face of tragedy

By Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Killings by gunfire occur with numbing frequency in our country. Solitary murders capture local, media attention for a day or two. Double or triple homicides will evoke wider coverage.

Mass murders generate national headlines and claim our attention for a longer interval before we move on to other concerns related to legislative paralysis, foreign turmoil and a tentative economic recovery.

The massacre of 20 children and six of their teachers in Newtown, Conn., is different in terms of the profound shock and sadness that has reverberated around the world. Pictures of the young victims remind us of our own children and grandchildren and the lives which we hope will unfold before them.

To prevent the next shooting disaster we need solid information upon which we can evaluate issues of gun ownership and formulate sound policy. Unfortunately, gun advocates within the Congress took steps years ago to block such inquiries. This sad chapter in covert politics in documented by Drs. Arthur L. Kellermann and Frederick P. Rivara in an online article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In 1996, pro-gun Congressmen worked to shut down the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Their efforts were stalled, but the group eventually succeeded in reducing appropriations for research in injuries related to firearms.

Subsequently, language was inserted into the appropriations that warned researchers to avoid any advocacy for gun control. Similar language was eventually extended to all agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services. Research into guns and violence ceased.

A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2011 prohibited military commanders from talking to personnel under their command about privately owned weapons. In light of record numbers of suicides among active duty soldiers, this restriction is absurd.

Gun lobbyists have influenced legislation in Washington to block access to data on firearms registration. Years earlier, this data had been used in research that correlated purchase of handguns and risk of homicide or suicide.

In 2011, Florida legislators enacted a measure, signed by the Gov. Rick Scott, that limits the ability of health-care providers to discuss or to obtain information from their patients about firearm ownership or safety. Such discussions can result in sanctions, including suspension of medical licensure. Enforcement of this law awaits the resolution of an injunction in federal court.

The important article in JAMA deserves wide readership. It raises fundamental questions:

• Do ordinary citizens stand any chance of being heard in legislatures dominated by pro-gun lobbyists?

• Do legislators beholden to the gun lobby oppose all regulations of firearms?

• Can Congress ban research into public health issues?

• How big is the firearms industry in America and how much money does the industry earmark for lobbying?

In 2011, 12,664 Americans were murdered. Sixty-eight per cent (8,583) were caused by firearms. Thousands more were wounded by gunfire. Each statistic has a name, a family, and a community.

At the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, the victims were named Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Benjamin, Allison, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, and Avielle. Their teachers were named Rachel, Dawn, Ann Marie, Lauren, Mary and Victoria.

Congress and state legislatures can no longer dodge the issue of guns in our society. Before participating in urgent and necessary debate, each legislator should have the courage to disclose fully every contribution of any kind that he or she has received from the National Rifle Association and any other pro-gun lobby. Any legislator who is unwilling to consider any restriction on access to guns should declare his position at the outset.

The killings must stop. Our elected officials must lead the way or step aside.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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