Should doctors play with guns?

AUSTIN, Texas -- It remains a Rorschach test for our times. As I've noted after previous incarnations of this ongoing discussion, different people see different things when they see a gun.

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Ken Herman
, Cox Newspapers

AUSTIN, Texas -- It remains a Rorschach test for our times. As I've noted after previous incarnations of this ongoing discussion, different people see different things when they see a gun.

Some see only a potential murder weapon. Some see good, clean recreational fun. Few have no reaction when they see or talk about guns.

So perhaps it was foreseeable that the Travis County Medical Society event that had been planned for Saturday could attract more attention than such events usually do.

"The Travis County Medical Society invites you to enjoy this exclusive event," says the invitation. "Join your colleagues at the new, luxury shooting club."

The invitation listed the location as the Range at Austin on the east side of Interstate 35 just north of Slaughter Lane. The facility bills itself as "not your typical gun range" and as featuring "one of the largest selection of guns and gun-related accessories in Texas."

The event came to my attention via Austinite Bernie Gillet, a retired medical scientist who was "incredulous" about it: "I find it troubling that a profession based on the ideal of primum non nocere -- first, do no harm -- would choose such a social activity, especially in our current environment of gun violence. Multiple physician organizations have released statements over the years on myriad harmful outcomes associated with gun injuries and gun deaths."

A day after the recent Florida high school shootings, American Medical Association President Dr. David O. Barbe urged physicians to "lend their voice and their considerable political muscle to examine this urgent health crisis -- through federally funded research -- and take appropriate steps to address it. ... We are not talking about Second Amendment rights or restricting your ability to own a firearm. We are talking about a public health crisis that our Congress has failed to address. This must end."

And he noted the AMA's call, after the 2012 elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, for -- among other things -- "renewing and strengthening the assault weapons ban, including banning high-capacity magazines."

Which brings us back to a "bunch of doctors walk into a shooting range." The local medical society, founded in 1853 and now with about 4,000 members, brings physicians together for social and education functions, as well as updating them on health care trends and legislative matters related to their profession.

"One could argue," Gillet told me, "that TCMS's choice for an activity is not unusual, given the views on gun ownership of many Texans and, obviously, at least some of their members. Nonetheless, the escalation of massive shootings and other gun violence begs the question of why esteemed physicians would choose a shooting club for their 'exclusive event.'"

I posed it to Marshall Cothran, the local medical society's CEO, who told me the group has programs on public health issues as well as social events "for the purpose of fellowship, relaxation and social interaction among colleagues away from the daily pressures of their work."

"It would be mistaken to think that, by hosting a private social event for our members at a shooting range, we condone gun violence," he told me. "Just as it would to think that, by sponsoring a physicians' happy hour, we are unconcerned about the tragic death toll from drunk driving and other alcohol-related crimes, accidents and diseases."

"The issues of firearm use and gun control are extremely complex and sensitive, both here in Texas and throughout the United States," he said. "However, as a component of the Texas Medical Association, TCMS has long advocated for the health and safety of this community, including primary prevention of firearm morbidity and mortality, and it will continue to do so."

That was Wednesday. On Thursday, Cothran told me that of 4,000 invitations sent out, there were "three emails from members with negative feedback on the event." He also told me the event was planned prior to the recent Florida high school shootings.

"And yes, we always second-guess ourselves when the unexpected intervenes," he said, adding "We recognize how easily the true purpose can be obscured by events. ... After a lot of thought and consideration, out of respect for those impacted by the recent tragedy and to prevent any misunderstanding of our purpose, we are canceling the event for Saturday," Cothran said, also telling me there's no decision as to whether it would be rescheduled for another time.

Good call, one that some might argue could have been made prior to this latest mass shooting.

Your feelings about a bunch of docs at a gun range will be guided by your feelings about guns. I'll leave that to you.

Me? I'm concentrating on hoping this latest sad chapter in our nearly 20 years of post-Columbine inaction will have a productive ending. I remain wary of restricting the rights of the law-abiding because of the wrongs of the law-breaking. But the status quo is unacceptable.

I'm finding hope in the poise and passion, energy and intelligence of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They approach this with a naivete about the political process that allows them to poke and prod the way others don't. Our stalemated system could use some poking and prodding.

Maybe mayhem picked on the wrong school this time.

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. Email: kherman(at)statesman.com.

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