Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

Sunday, December 24, 2017 1:00 am

Candid gun views torpedo appointment

Dean L. Winslow

I recently withdrew from consideration to be assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. My appointment had been put on indefinite hold by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I felt the Defense Department needed to fill the position without delay.

I am sorry not to be able to assist Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whom I deeply respect. I have the credentials, including 35 years in the Air Force (including four deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan after 9/11), in military and academic medicine, and in private practice, public hospitals, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries, and public health. Unfortunately, I do not possess one credential the committee wanted: I do not support the unrestricted ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons by civilians.

I arrived for my hearing the day after the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. I heard about it when I got off the plane from England, a country with effective gun control and minimal gun violence. As a devout Christian, a parent, a doctor and an American, I was deeply troubled by yet another loss of innocent lives, this time in the sanctity of a house of worship.

At my hearing, jet-lagged and in mourning over those killed, I was asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, about the military discharge status of the shooter. Although I stated that discharge status was not my area of responsibility, Shaheen pressed her point. I acknowledged the Air Force dropped the ball and recommended an investigation focusing on systems failures that contributed to the tragedy.

Then, I blurted out what was in my heart: “I'd also like to ... just say how insane it is that in the United States of America a civilian can go out and buy a semiautomatic weapon like an AR-15.” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, interrupted, warning this was not in my “area of responsibility or expertise.” Soon after, my confirmation was put on hold.

I am a marksman, rated expert in the M-16 rifle (the fully automatic military version of the AR-15). As commander of an Air Force hospital in Baghdad during the surge, I have seen what these weapons do to human beings. The injuries are devastating. In addition, because of their high muzzle velocities, assault weapons are challenging for untrained civilians to control and are not optimal for home defense.

A pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, with its excellent stopping power, would be far better. Assault rifles are also poor hunting weapons due to poor accuracy beyond 100 yards.

But with a standard 30-round magazine, assault rifles are perfect for mass murder. From 1995 to 2004, assault weapons were severely restricted in the United States. During that time, mass shootings were far less frequent – 1.6 compared with 4.2 per year after the ban lapsed in 2005. The experience in Australia is even more dramatic: No mass shootings since assault weapons were outlawed in 1996. Assault weapons are not being used to kill “bad guys” in self-defense or to provide for a “well-regulated militia” but for entertainment, mass murder and domestic terrorism.

To be sure, my testimony was impolitic. I know, too, that at least one other issue (my support for access to therapeutic abortion, in accordance with federal law, for women in military service was also a sticking point) helped to torpedo my appointment.

Nevertheless, I have no regrets. Having semiautomatic weapons makes no sense. It is a public-health issue that, as a doctor, I felt compelled to bring to the Senate's attention. As a citizen, I am saddened that our government has become so dominated by pro-gun lobbyists that an appointment such as mine – which has no responsibility for gun control – can be sidelined by a single sentence of informed, personal opinion. And that really is insane.

Dean L. Winslow, a retired Air Force colonel and flight surgeon, is a professor of medicine at Stanford University. He wrote this for the Washington Post.