Doctors Divided on Guns

Is Gun Ownership A Legitimate Medical Issue?

Some doctors who see and treat the devastating results of gun use have begun asking their patients if they own guns in much the same way they ask about diet and exercise.

But other doctors say those who question gun ownership are entering a political arena that has nothing to do with medicine. Morley Safer talks to doctors on both sides of this issue in a 60 Minutes report to be broadcast Sunday, May 12, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

Medical associations representing more than 300,000 doctors have formed a coalition urging doctors to treat gun ownership as a health concern. Dr. Jeremiah Barondess, who heads the New York Academy of Medicine, founded the group.

"Doctors, I think, not only have a legitimate interest in this," says Barondess. "I don't see how they can turn away from a cause that produces 30,000 deaths a year."

But Dr. Tim Wheeler, a surgeon from California, contends it's politics rather than medicine the doctors are practicing.

"It's clear these physicians are working from a political agenda against gun owners," Wheeler tells Safer. "Any doctor who asks a patient an intrusive and politically motivated question about guns in the home is committing an ethical boundary violation. It's not our job to engage in a political assault on a fundamental right of our patients."

Even doctors in trauma centers, who treat the injuries caused by gunshots, are divided. Dr. Mark McKenney of Miami's Ryder Trauma Center, a gun owner himself, believes gun ownership is as much a health issue as HIV or car accidents.

"[Gun ownership has] a huge impact on the national health care… [it's] a problem of national significance," he says. But his colleague at Ryder, Dr. Anire Okpaku, disagrees. "An armed society is a better society," he says, "The violence we see here is the result of many other factors. The gun is the symptom of the problem, but is not the problem itself," Okpaku tells Safer.

He admits it's "heart wrenching" to see the damage a gun can do to young children, but "I see far, far more kids …who don't wear their seatbelt and get thrown out of the car…who get hit by cars."