CHICAGO – As news spread about the scope of Sunday’s mass shooting in Orlando, the nation’s largest medical society was debating whether it should even take a new stand on gun violence.
For the second consecutive year at its annual meeting in Chicago, the American Medical Association is considering a proposal to support background checks for buyers in every gun transaction. The association has long taken positions against gun violence: it has urged the use of trigger locks and locked gun cabinets, it has asked manufacturers of toy guns to make their products less realistic, and it has supported the idea of a waiting period before a firearms purchase.
But even as speakers at a hearing Sunday evoked the Orlando shooting, they acknowledged that gun control is as divisive in the medical profession as it is throughout American society.
A medical student from California cited research suggesting that so-called universal background checks could reduce firearms deaths by 57 percent. Gun violence, she said, is “a public health crisis.” Other speakers representing psychiatrists, women doctors, minority physicians and others concurred.
But Dr. Mike Greene of Macon, a member of the Medical Association of Georgia’s board of directors, led a spirited attack on the proposal, raising questions about whether the AMA should involve itself in matters that are not solely medical.
“This is an issue we’re never going to completely agree on,” Greene said. He acknowledged that “some” evidence supports the theory that broader background checks would reduce homicides and suicides. But he wondered how many people pass background checks but go to kill themselves or others.
Finally, Greene said private transactions, including passing a firearm from one family member to another, should, in fact, remain private.
“The federal government has no need to know whether I own, possess or use a firearm unless it is done illegally,” he said.
Others suggested the AMA was driving away members by taking controversial stands on political issues.
But Dr. Peter Kaufman of Maryland, who identified himself as a “proud gun owner,” said the organization risked making itself irrelevant if it avoided contentious matters.
“I want to be a member of the AMA that speaks loudly and correctly,” he said.
Moments after Kaufman spoke, breaking news alerts lit up phones all around the room: the death toll in Orlando, initially reported at about 20, had reached 50.
The proposal will work its way through the AMA’s legislative process this week, and even if it passes, it obviously has no direct effect on federal law.
The only concrete action the AMA took on gun violence came early Sunday, when it observed a moment of silence for the victims in Orlando.