Minnesota’s largest physicians’ organization has entered the debate over gun control, calling for a ban on assault weapons and more research on gun violence, in reaction to last month’s Florida high school shooting.
While the stance risks political fallout, including the defection of pro-gun doctors, leaders of the Minnesota Medical Association said they felt compelled to confront gun violence as a public health issue.
“Few threats to our health and safety can be eliminated, but failure to intervene in the face of this significant epidemic is not an option,” the association said in a statement set for statewide distribution Thursday morning.
The group had previously adopted written statements about gun violence, but this time added a call for “a renewal and strengthening of the assault weapons ban, including banning high-capacity magazines.” An assault weapon was used in the Feb. 14 Parkland High School shooting that killed 17 people, and multiple weapons and high-capacity magazines were used in the Oct. 1 Las Vegas concert shooting that killed 58 people.
“It’s important, as a significant health care organization in this state, that we be seen as involved on this issue,” said Dr. Randy Rice, a Moose Lake, Minn., family doctor who is chairman of the association’s board. He noted that the statement echoes similar stances adopted by the American Medical Association.
The association has about 10,000 members and represents about one-third of Minnesota’s doctors.
Some Minnesota physicians challenged the decision. Dr. Alexander Stricker, a physician in Cannon Falls who has competed in tactical shooting tournaments, said a professional organization shouldn’t express opinions on politically divisive issues such as gun control. He also questioned the effectiveness of gun legislation.
“When fully vetted, the evidence in favor of gun control is not supported,” Stricker said Wednesday.
Rice said he hopes doctors who own guns would remain members and not be put off by a single issue.
Overall gun-related fatalities in Minnesota have been on the rise in the past two decades, but mainly because of an increase in suicides, according to state and federal databases reviewed by the Star Tribune.
Firearm-related deaths increased from 296 in 1999 to 432 last year, according to a database maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Roughly three in four firearm-related deaths in Minnesota are self-inflicted.
The 92 firearm-related homicides in Minnesota in 2015 was the highest annual total since 2005 — the year of the Red Lake High School shooting, which resulted in 10 deaths, according to state and federal death databases. (The rate of firearm-related homicides has remained flat in Minnesota due to the state’s rising population.)
Congressional restrictions have blocked the CDC from conducting public health research on gun violence for many years, and that has affected the Minnesota Department of Health because it receives substantial federal funding for its research. The most recent firearm-related injury study on the department’s violence and injury prevention unit website is dated 2002.
The department is taking steps to make data available to academic researchers and others who could use it to identify trends in violent deaths and offer solutions, said Dr. Jon Roesler, who supervises the state’s injury epidemiology programs. That includes redesigning a state database known as MIDAS, from which anyone can download statistics on injuries causing hospitalizations and deaths.
“You can’t prevent what you can’t count,” Roesler said.
The medical association’s statement echoed the effort to improve public health research on gun violence. The association isn’t prioritizing gun violence as a legislative issue this session, but will monitor related bills and comment on them in hearings, Rice said.
While noting that most people with mental illness aren’t violent, the association also called for better access to treatment and better screenings to identify “individuals at risk for violence or self harm.”