I was 5-years-old the first time I saw a gun. Growing up in Hyderabad, India, the only times I even really heard guns discussed were in conversations about hunting. My family was visiting a relative, an avid deer hunter, when I took note of the unloaded rifle, hanging on the wall and safely out of reach.
In January 1968, I landed in the country of my dreams after completing my post-graduate studies in psychiatry at Glasgow University, Scotland. I became fascinated with the United States as a teenager after visiting the US Information Center in my hometown of Hyderabad, India.
I was impressed by how immigrants of different cultures, religions, ethnicity, and languages came from all over the world and lived together in peace and harmony in the US. I learned that in this country of opportunity people could pursue their goals and achieve their dreams. During the 1960s when I was studying in the United Kingdom, President John F. Kennedy made America popular for its democracy, religious tolerance, freedom of speech, and opportunity for self-actualization.
Despite more than four decades as a proud US citizen and passionate Texan, I don’t think there will ever be a time I will become desensitized from news coverage of gun violence. It is tragically unsurprising that — in a country where guns cause 40,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries annually — Americans possess more guns per capita than any other country.
In all my decades experience as a physician, before I retired in 2015, I had pledged to be there for my patients however I could, to do everything in my power to improve and save lives. As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen firsthand the ghastly toll gun violence, physically and emotionally, has taken on patients of mine — both physically and emotionally — as well as their communities.
Unfortunately, our lawmakers and the general population appear to share a great tolerance for this mayhem. I have read hundreds of articles written by well-respected journalists and professionals who repeatedly recommend monitoring gun control through background checks. Most countries of the world follow this basic principle of gun control, except the US.
I wrote this article based on my own conclusions about the causes for the American obsession with gun ownership and recommend an entirely different approach to controlling this deadly
It was just in Summer of 2019 when more than 26 mass shootings gripped the United States: in May, a disgruntled worker enters a Virginia Beach municipal building and fatally shoots 12 people; in August, a 21-year-old is accused of massacring nearly two-dozen shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso; the next day, a gunman opens fire on a crowded street in downtown Dayton, killing nine.
The survivors of those horrific tragedies whose pleas for change and legislative action to keep guns out of the hands of potentially dangerous people have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.
Just before the deadly shooting in El Paso, Governor Greg Abbott had signed ten pro-gun bills into law, which made it easier for Texans to buy military-style arsenals for self-defense, like those soldiers use to fight in hostile countries.
It is not simply anger or any other motivation that is the real problem. It is the easy availability of a gun which kills people.
With the inauguration of the new president, we have reason to be cautiously optimistic. President Joseph R. Biden rightfully characterizes gun violence in the US as a “public health epidemic.” In the early 1990s, during his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Biden helped pass the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act as well as a 10-year ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in 1994.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that 79 percent of Republicans favored protecting gun ownership rights over imposing limitations to gun access.
The Second Amendment protects the use of weapons for lawful purposes only, including self-defense. Machine guns and similar weapons of mass destruction may be useful in war, but I can’t imagine the framers of the Constitution imagined civilians roaming about with machine guns.
Rapid-fire weapons may prove effective in a war zone — but I can’t imagine the framers of the Constitution imagined civilians roaming about with machine guns during peacetime. Nonetheless, owning guns like these remains an obsession for countless Americans. Look no further than the 17-year-old accused of gunning down three people (killing two of them) at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Kenosha this Summer. The gun he was brandishing. A military-style, semi-automatic AR-15.
Religious leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities shared the impact of gun violence based on years of experience counseling the victims and their families. They spoke against the gun violence plaguing their communities as they have witnessed the grave impact that gun violence has on families, schools, houses of worship, and neighborhoods
Even corporate America has spoken in favor of strong measures for gun control.
Dick’s Sporting Goods overhauled its gun sales policies, stopped selling guns in 200 of its new stores, and destroyed about $5 million worth of weapons, turning them into scrap metal. Dicks also pulled all military-style weapons from its stores, banned high-capacity magazines, and will not sell firearms to anyone under the age of 21. Edward Stack, Dick’s CEO, publicly criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for withholding gun control legislation in Congress. Not surprisingly, the NRA, Republican lawmakers, and customers chastised Stack for his sensible decisions. Mr. Stack has set an example for other gun sellers to put saving lives above bottom-line profits.
In 2015, the American College of Physicians (ACP) joined 52 health organizations to address gun violence as a public health threat. The recommendations include encouraging physicians to discuss with patients the risks associated with keeping a firearm in the home along with methods for mitigating the risk. ACP also strongly recommends the sale of firearms be subject to completion of an educational program on firearm safety, universal background checks, banning assault weapons with large-capacity magazines, closing the gun show loophole (private sales at gun shows), and prosecuting people who sell firearms illegally or purchase firearms for anyone banned from gun possession (straw purchases).
There is an abundant need for public education in the US about gun violence, our obsession with gun ownership, regulating gun sales, closing loopholes in existing laws, and implementing a nationwide gun licensing system. It is our responsibility as citizens to make people aware of the consequences of gun obsession and ineffective gun laws. Because our knowledge of human behavior is not advanced enough to predict behavior — nor is it reasonable that every purchaser receives a certification from a behavioral scientist to buy a gun — I believe public education is the best way we have to change the behavior. I strongly encourage physicians, clergy, and teachers to take responsibility for educating the public about the dangers of owning a gun, the impact they have on innocent victims, and the traumatic effects gun violence has on thousands of survivors.
These three groups—health professionals, faith leaders, and schools and colleges—have access to most people living in US, and they are compassionate, care for and value human life, and, for the most part, are concerned about the high incidence of death from gun violence.
I strongly recommend that all organizations that support gun control add a robust public education component to their mission. I am confident we can control the epidemic of gun violence if we intervene early in a young person’s life by insisting health professions, faith leaders, and teachers do their part to challenge the unexamined assumptions that for too long have governed the rationale for gun ownership in America.
Dr. M Basheer Ahmed, a former professor of psychiatry in South Western Medical School, is chairman emeritus of Muslim Community Center for Human Services in North Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org