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.
I'd just like to point out that current laws do require that a person must be of a certain age and physical/mental condition to own a gun. 18 to own a firearm, 21 to purchase a handgun and centerfire handgun ammunition in most states. It's set at 18 for ownership because that's when you become an adult in the eyes of the law and can vote, smoke, get drafted, etc. And persons that have been committed to a hospital for psychiatric care or been mentally adjudicated by a court are prohibited from owning or buying guns.
Additionally persons that obtain concealed carry weapon (CCW) permits are required to demonstrate knowledge and skill in proper use of their firearms. This is something that I, as a gun owner, do actually agree with. In fact I'd go further and say that gun safety training should be a part of a standard junior high or high school education.
As far as monitoring gun use goes, that's a bit sticky legally. The constitution and courts are very clear on privacy matters. Unless the cops have a reasonable suspicion or probably cause to suspect that a crime is taking place or is being planned they can't tap your phones, monitor your property and purchases and watch your every move. I wouldn't give Dr. Koop too much flak for this one since he was a medical doctor and not a lawyer.
His final suggestion, that your right to own a gun should be forfeit if you misuse it is, again, already the law throughout the country and has been going back decades. Pretty much all gun crimes, especially all violent gun crimes, are felonies and all felony convictions mean losing your right to vote, own a gun, and several other rights and privileges.
You mentioned the presidents proposals and I think it's safe toe assume that you are generally supportive of them but nothing that he is pushing would have stopped any of the recent mass shootings and some are red-herrings that actually target legitimate hunters and target shooters. The only proposal that I've seen from the White House that I can agree with is ending the freeze on gun violence research.