Doctors worried by Supreme Court gun ruling

WASHINGTON Wed Jul 9, 2008 7:44pm EDT

esse LaFlores fires a 9mm handgun at Rink's Gun and Sport in the Chicago, suburb of Lockport, Illinois June 26, 2008. REUTERS/Frank Polich

esse LaFlores fires a 9mm handgun at Rink's Gun and Sport in the Chicago, suburb of Lockport, Illinois June 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Frank Polich

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Last month's Supreme Court ruling striking down a strict gun control law in the U.S. capital will lead to more deaths and accidental injuries, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine said on Wednesday.

They joined a growing clamor from medical doctors, especially emergency room physicians, who fear a surge of accidental deaths, murders and suicides if handguns become more easily available than they already are.

The ruling struck down a law in Washington that forbade personal ownership of handguns. The court made explicit, for the first time, that Americans had rights as individuals to own guns.

It won praise from President George W. Bush, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and guns rights advocates. But gun control groups expressed concern about new legal attacks on existing gun laws.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who voted with the 5-4 majority on the decision, said citizens may prefer handguns for home defense because they "can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police."

The three editors of the prominent medical journal, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, Stephen Morrissey and Dr. Gregory Curfman, said handguns were far more likely to cause harm than do good.

"In our opinion, there is little reason to expect an optimistic result; research has shown and logic would dictate that fewer restrictions on handguns will result in a substantial increase in injury and death," they wrote in a commentary released in Thursday's issue.

The United States is estimated to have the world's highest civilian gun ownership rate. Gun deaths average 80 a day in the United States, 34 of them murders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"In 2005, the last year with complete data, there were more than 30,000 deaths and 70,000 nonfatal injuries from firearms," Drazen, a physician at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues wrote.

"About one quarter of the nonfatal injuries and a tenth of the deaths were in children and adolescents. To place these numbers in perspective, 10 times as many Americans die each year from firearms as have died in the Iraq war during the past five years," they added.

"Firearm injuries represent a major public health problem that seems certain to be exacerbated with less handgun regulation."

Other doctors have agreed.

"A number of scientific studies, published in the world's most rigorous, peer-reviewed journals, show the risks of keeping a loaded gun in the home outweigh the potential benefits," Dr. Arthur Kellerman, an emergency physician at Emory University in Atlanta, wrote in The Washington Post.

"According to the Justice Department, far more guns are lost each year to burglary or theft than are used to defend people or property."

The New England Journal editors noted that the 1976 Washington law affected by the ruling resulted in an immediate 25 percent decline in murders and suicides in the District of Columbia but not in neighboring Virginia and Maryland.

"It is well documented in the medical literature that regulation of guns benefits the public health," they wrote.

"We have a heightened concern about suicide," they added.

Medical experts note it is far easier to carry out a suicide with a gun than it is using any other method.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)