Column: License to Kill

On October 21, 2021, a middle-aged, white woman was shot and killed in New Mexico. She was thought to be the victim of an accidental Colt 45 revolver discharge. The .45 caliber bullet passed through her and lodged in the shoulder of a co-worker standing behind her.  None of this was especially newsworthy since, on average, more than 50 people are shot and killed by firearms in the United States every day.  This body count does not include the nearly 60 people who use firearms to commit suicide in the U.S. every day, nor does it include the hundreds wounded but not killed by the daily shower of projectiles exiting guns and rifles in our cities, towns, and movie sets. What propelled this unremarkable daily occurrence to the top of the national news was that the person holding the gun when Ms. Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed was Alec Baldwin, a famous American actor and movie producer.

The specifics of this shooting will inevitably change from day to day as inquiries are pursued, evidence is examined, and blame is assigned. The most obvious question is why real guns and real bullets were on a movie set. The depiction of light saber duels in Star Wars movies and phaser discharges on StarTrek episodes are quite convincing, even though these weapons do not actually exist. Movie directors and producers have said since the Baldwin/Hutchins tragedy that they have routinely filmed firearm scenes without using real weapons or live ammunition.  Computer manipulation has been available for many years that provides convincing simulations of guns and gunfire without endangering any members of the cast or crew.

Alec Baldwin reported that he was rehearsing a scene for the movie, “Rust” when the gun he was holding discharged.  Witnesses say he had been notified by the assistant director, Dave Hall, that the gun was “cold,” i.e., holding no live ammunition. Hall claimed the gun had been checked by the armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, an employee specifically tasked with assuring the safety of and inspecting the condition of weapons used on the movie set.  Unanswered questions include who brought live ammunition for this gun onto the set, who loaded this gun with a real bullet, why was the live round overlooked by at least two people charged with that responsibility, and why did Alec Baldwin point the gun at the shooting victims. Rule #1 in every firearms safety course is never point a gun at someone you are not intending to shoot, even if you believe the gun has no live ammunition in it.

The Soviet mass-murderer Joseph Stalin allegedly remarked, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” The attention given to the Baldwin/Hutchins shooting emphasizes the validity of this cynical observation. While guns and rifles killed approximately 100 Americans on October 21, 2021, and wounded hundreds more, we, the people of the United States of America, were transfixed by and agonized over one shooting. We could not possibly think about all of the other shootings in our country without becoming despondent. A foreign observer looking at the “statistics” would inevitably conclude that there is an undeclared war in America with an ever expanding segment of the population taking up arms against a poorly defined enemy and thousands of others succumbing to combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. From a physician’s point of view, this is a medical crisis.

To say that shooting deaths and injuries are an epidemic is a cliché. After every major shooting, the second amendment to the Constitution is trotted out and dusted off. We devoutly ignore several elements of this amendment whenever our right to stockpile firearms appears to be threatened. The most obvious is that the amendment was written at a time when the most potent personal firearm was the musket, an inaccurate and cumbersome instrument that even the most highly trained soldier could not load and fire more than five times a minute. Neither the British nor the American forces in the Revolution issued the recently invented breech-loading rifle to its troops, an innovation that relieved soldiers of the need to stand up to muzzle-load their firearms. The threat of slave revolts, Native American retaliations for infringement on their lands, renewed assaults from British forces in the northwest [that would be Ohio] and a variety of other concerns that are no longer valid were motivations leading to the second amendment. With or without that amendment, our infatuation with firearms will persist, and the daily slaughter will continue.

Physicians faced with an imminent threat to their client base feel obliged to offer solutions, and so allow me to suggest what a sane nation might do. Obviously the distribution of military firearms and guns and rifles that are easily converted to military grade equipment can and should be stopped. These automatic and semi-automatic instruments are useful in the violent overthrow of governments, but if we face that apocalypse, our guns will not save us from self-destruction.

As a physician, I have access to innumerable lethal or crippling agents, but it took me more than eight years of training, passing numerous oral and written examinations, and satisfying repeated demands that I have other physicians certify that I am physically and mentally competent before I was given a license to prescribe drugs and treatments that may kill or cure. To get a gun or rifle and ammunition that may kill dozens of my fellow Americans, I need only complete a few documents and write a check. That is insane. To get a driver’s license, you must pass a vision test. To get a 9 mm Glock pistol with 100 rounds of ammunition, you must provide a valid credit card. In most states you cannot eat at a restaurant if you are not wearing shoes, but in many of those same states you can sit down to eat even if you have an unconcealed firearm. Are bare feet all that dangerous?

Possessing firearms makes us feel safer and more powerful.  The more insecure and impotent we feel, the more weapons we buy.  The irony is that fire arm-facilitated murders, suicides, and accidental deaths have risen steadily with the widespread availability and possession of these lethal weapons. America needs to address its rabid fear, anxiety, racism, xenophobia, and paranoia before the carnage abates. More guns are not making us safer or more secure.  We apparently have forgotten that bullets kill people, and having more bullets than the people we fear or hate does not make us any safer.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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