January 3, 2013 | Posted By John Kaplan, PhD

More than in any other academic field, I have observed that bioethicists love to express their opinion. This has lead to a great proliferation of bioethics blogs, a huge presence in social media, and a number of active email listserves and discussion groups. All of these are tools for bioethicists use to expand the reach of the field and an outlet for voices laying claim to the need for bioethicists to weigh in on a broad array of issues. Considering this, and considering the news of the last several weeks, it is amazing how little bioethicists are saying about the need for gun control. To his credit Arthur Caplan has called for treating violence as a public health issue and viewing  gun control as a public health tool. However the dialogue on gun control in the myriad venues for bioethical discussion has been lacking. It should also be noted that the American College of Physicians called for this in 1998 to no avail.

What should be the role of the bioethicist in this discussion? First of all, bioethicists are people and people with so much to say should surely express their outrage on the ready availability of weapons of war in the hands of the populace and its use to prey on both innocent children and the first responders we all count on for public safety. But there are also issues which fall in the mainstream of bioethical focus which require bioethicists to speak up.

Many bioethicists frame their emphasis on four principles, respect for persons, beneficence, nonmalificence, and justice. Respect for persons in generally viewed as a principle supporting autonomy. I grant this principle could be seen as supporting an individual’s right to decide to own guns. However this principle also reflects one basic right to life, health and safety. These may be viewed as conflicting rights. They are not. Gun ownership has no moral equivalence with a child’s right not to be slaughtered in their classroom. 

It should not be forgotten that the Declaration of Independence of the United States describes the right of the people to institute government “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” Yes “Safety and Happiness”, not gun ownership.  The capitalization is from the framers, not from me. I will leave it to others to expound on the relationship of gun control to beneficence, nonmalificence, and justice. 

The nature of the physician-patient relationship is a special focus of bioethicists. Bioethicists have been quite vocal, and rightfully so, in government intrusion into the physicians role of counseling patient on reproductive choices. They have been largely silent on government intrusion concerning the physicians input on the health risks of gun possession. The supporters of gun ownership under the leadership of the National Rifle Association have been quietly but effectively limiting this dialogue.

They have successfully placed limitations on physician discussion about guns in both the new federal Affordable Care Act and in state legislation such as Florida’s law which can impose jail time on physician who ask their patients about gun ownership. This Florida law has not stood up to court challenge.

It seems to be time that a public health issue with such direct relevance to fostering the right to be free of gun violence and unfettered physician-patient communication is viewed clearly as an issue demanding bioethical attention.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.