Dr. Johnstone, a family physician in Indiana, explains why one of his female patients chooses to carry a gun. Dr. Wheeler, in a brief sidebar, explains why he as a physician chooses to own guns.
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Barbara (that's not her real name) is a 102-pound sprite who came to my just-opened practice in 1988. During a routine exam, a discussion of contraception brought on a flood of tears, and I learned her secret: She had been raped a few years earlier, during her first weeks as a teacher in Ohio. A student had attacked her at school while two others played lookout.
Barbara had quit her job and moved with her family to Indiana, but she'd been afraid to tell them about the rape. I persuaded her to end her silence. Her husband was extremely supportive, and she was able to draw strength from close friends at her church. I like to think my support as her family physician helped, as well.
In addition to addressing the health and marital issues arising from the violent attack, I referred Barbara to another patient of minea policewoman. The officer helped her select a handgun, learn to use it, and obtain a permit to carry it concealed. Ohio allows no citizen permits, but Indiana issues one to citizens who do not have a history of reckless or criminal conduct.
I didn't realize how much having a firearm meant to Barbara until she expressed considerable anxiety about the passage of a "gun-free school" act. She'd taken another teaching job since moving, and the new law made her a criminal unless she parked away from the school and left her gun in the carneither sensible nor safe. She left teaching, taking a big cut in pay to work at a church-run women's shelter.
One day, after she'd taken her son's forgotten lunch to his school, she realized with a shudder that she'd committed a felony by walking into the building with a gun in her possession.
Since Barbara won't leave a gun in her car where a thief or child might find it, she shows up for appointments with it tucked discreetly in a concealed holster, but that doesn't bother me.* Barbara's determination to protect herself and her children isn't limited to owning a handgun, but if the locks, alarms, and other precautions fail, she has resolved never to be a victim again. Protecting her safety outweighs being politically correct.
I have lots of Barbaras in my practice, though most have less dramatic histories. In Indiana, about 7 percent of adults have a license to carry a concealed handgun. I actively encourage my responsible patients to consider owning firearms. After reading thousands of pages on the subject, I'm convinced that unfettered firearms ownership reduces violenceby tipping the balance of power away from the criminaland that our Constitution's authors considered it essential for preserving social order.
If the gun issue is germane to concerns of public health, we must discuss not just the costs of firearms ownership but the benefits, as well.
*See Memo from the Editor's Guest: "The gun in my examining room," Feb. 7, 2000.
Let me introduce you to America's gun ownersall 80 million of us. We're the ones who don't make headlines, and a surprising number of us are doctors and nurses.
The Medical Economics survey of physicians' lifestyles reported last year that nearly one-third of physicians own firearms.* We use them for hunting (45 percent of us, the survey showed), target practice (41 percent), and self-defense (38 percent). Of female physicians who own guns, 54 percent say they use them for self-defense.
Criminologists who've studied gun ownership find that most of us are exceedingly prudent in handling and using our weapons. We wouldn't think of hurting anyone recklessly or maliciously. But we do use firearms to defend ourselves against violent criminalsabout 1 million times a year.
Perhaps the best-kept secret in the debate over firearms is the revolution in state laws governing gun permits. Some 30 states now have laws that allow law-abiding, mentally competent citizens to carry discreetly hidden handguns for self-protection. Opponents of such laws have warned that motorists would shoot it out over fender-benders and that blood would run in the streets. It hasn't happened.
In 1998, University of Chicago professor John Lott published a massive study of state gun-permit laws. He found that in jurisdictions allowing eligible applicants to carry handguns, rates of violent crime fell significantly (More Guns, Less Crime, University of Chicago Press, 1998).
A gun is not an evil talisman. It is a tool for good or bad, depending on the person using it. Fortunately, almost all American gun owners use that tool with great caution and competence. We should respect the expertise of gun owners and have faith in their goodness.
*See "How many doctors own guns?" Oct. 9, 2000.
Andrew Johnstone, Timothy Wheeler. Memo From the Editor's Guests: Why Barbara carries a gun. Medical Economics 2001;3:9.