Guns And The (Re)Public's Health

Gun ownership may be a constitutional right, but gun safety is a public health issue. Thus, in considering the extraordinary sit-in by members of Congress in the United States House of Representatives, it is imperative that we not lose sight of the health impact of this action and its consequences.

By now, anyone willing honestly to consider the issue of gun safety understands that thoughtful restrictions on access to firearms can protect the safety and health of individual Americans. But one perspective that may be overlooked is how the present confrontation is negatively affecting the health of our American republic. No citizen can take comfort in the fact that elected officials felt compelled to engage in civil disobedience to draw attention to modest, but popular, legislative proposals for reducing the access to firearms. Regardless of one's party affiliation or ideological commitment to the Second Amendment, such proposals deserved debate and a vote by the people's elected lawmakers. Our republic is weakened when the House Speaker can thwart the democratic process so as to protect his partisan allies from risking the displeasure of the powerful gun lobby.

The nation's health is further jeopardized when fealty to gun rights trump other protections, including freedom of speech. Some state legislators have gone so far as to bar physicians from discussing child safety protections with gun-owning parents. Moreover, by liberalizing concealed carrying restrictions, lawmakers have expanded the spaces where Americans may fear for their safety or risk to their lives, including places of worship and college campuses. A debate over gun safety would enable supporters of restrictions to highlight research showing that access restrictions reduce gun deaths; it would also reveal that opponents can provide no credible evidence that the public is safer or that our democracy is healthier by doing nothing to reduce gun violence.

From a national health perspective, the initial response of House Republicans to the sit-in was jaw dropping. To preempt consideration of gun safety, Republicans voted to weaken legal protections of the fiscal health of middle-income investors as well as the integrity of our nation's banking system. To disrupt their protesting colleagues, Republicans convened to override a Department of Labor regulation requiring professional financial advisors to prioritize their clients' best interests when making investment recommendations for their client's retirement funds. That we require a government mandate to ensure retirees are not cheated of their savings needed to meet health needs and to live with dignity in their final years is, by itself, stunning. The juxtaposition of the two issues reveals an obeisance to corporate and moneyed interests that is most troubling. It is consistent with efforts to relax drug safety regulation to ensure the financial health of pharmaceutical companies.

When middle of the night momentary "sessions" failed to end the sit-in, the Republicans declared the House in recess without first voting on funding needed to respond to the Zika virus threat. A public health crisis deserves action from responsible lawmakers who will not use human suffering to achieve extraneous political objectives. Rather than reserving debate over contested hot button issues for the appropriate public forums, Republicans are holding hostage the imperative of an disease response to the achievement of their ideological agenda. Ironically, these irresponsible lawmakers criticized the Democrats for violating House rules and dismissed the sit-in as a publicity stunt.

By abruptly adjourning the House for a prolonged July 4 vacation, the Republicans signaled there would be no debate or vote on gun safety and hence, no purpose in Democrats continuing their sit-in. Lawmakers are now free to bask in the spotlight of prominence in their local Independence Day parades as well as to take restful vacations before gearing up for their reelection campaigns. But for those of us who are not obsessed with restriction-free gun ownership, male, wealthy, powerful, and certain that opposing opinions are wrong, America's birthday reminds us to worry anew about health of our republic.