Most of the tributes to former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who died yesterday at age 96, are quick to remind us that he became a household name. As the New York Times‘ story notes that “is a rare distinction for a public health administrator.” Dr. Koop’s notoriety could be attributed to his “long silver beard and white braided uniform,” as TIME magazine noted, to his pronouncements in 1986 about the health effects of second-hand tobacco smoke, and for his eventual warnings about the risk factors associated with contracting HIV. The USA Today‘s obituary about the Reagan-era Surgeon General recalls that his mailing in 1988 to 107 million households about HIV/AIDS “came in a sealed packet with the warning that ‘some of the issues involved in this brochure may not be things you are used to discussing openly.’” In more recent years, the former Surgeon General wrote about the health perils of obesity and managed care, and rejected evidence on the adverse consequences of phthalates on human health.
The mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary and the death by gun fire of other youngsters like Chicago student Hadiya Pendleton, 15, drew my attention to another article by C. Everett Koop. In 1992, he wrote an editorial for the Journal of the American Medical Association entitled “Time to Bite the Bullet Back.” Koop and co-author George Lundberg, MD argued that violence is a public health issue that could be addressed more effectively by an interdisciplinary approach. The Surgeon General indicated that his views on gun violence were informed by his 1985 Workshop on Violence and Public Health.
“No society, including ours, need be permeated by firearm homicide. …The right to own or operate a motor vehicle carries with it certain responsibilities…we propose that the right to own or operate a firearm carries with it the same prior conditions.”
Their criteria were:
- be of a certain age and physical/mental condition
- be required to demonstrate knowledge and skill in proper use of that firearm
- be monitored in the firearm’s use, and
- forfeit the right to own or operate a firearm if these conditions are abrogated.
“These restrictions should apply uniformly to all firearms and to all U.S. inhabitants across all states through a system of gun registration and licensing for gun owners and users. No grandfather clauses should be allowed.”
Many–too many–tears have been shed for victims of gun violence. President Obama has offered a proposal to address the problem, and some Members of Congress have proposed their own fixes. I think that Dr. Koop would agree that there is no one, single action to solve the problem, but shame on the U.S. if we don’t even try.