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Firearms and Public Health: A Gun Owner’s Perspective

Firearms and Public Health: A Gun Owner’s Perspective

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Timothy Wheeler, MD, founder and past director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership met recently with MedPage Today Editor-in-Chief Peggy Peck to discuss his advocacy for the use of firearm suppressors — popularly referred to as silencers — as a public health initiative.

Following is a transcript of the interview:

Peggy Peck: Dr. Timothy Wheeler, you are the founder of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, and I believe something like 11 months ago you stepped down as director of that organization. But I’d like you to tell me a little bit about how that organization came to be.

Timothy Wheeler, MD: Peggy, back in 1993 and ’94, I founded Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership with some medical colleagues because we noticed at that time that the public health community was ramping up an organized campaign against gun ownership in the United States. They were leaving out a lot of the very solid research from the criminology world that showed completely different results from their research, and we thought we would give that a voice.

Peck: As you’ve given it a voice, I think you’ve been involved in testifying in Congress, and I believe, perhaps, at the state level in your own state here in California. I’d like you to tell us a bit about those instances.

Wheeler: The most important testimony that we gave was to the House Appropriations Committee in March of 1996, and this was in connection with funding for the Centers for Disease Control. Contrary to the meme that has been portrayed endlessly in the media since then, Congress did not take away funding for gun research at the CDC. What Congress did was to very specifically forbid the use of tax money to fund, at that time, the CDC’s ongoing campaign of promoting gun control.

The one that we testified in connection with … and again, this was not to promote or to oppose any specific legislation. We were giving facts to the Senate Public Safety Committee. This had to do with funding for gun research, supposedly gun research at UC-Davis by Dr. Garen Wintemute. Let’s just say that the state is funding Dr. Wintemute’s anti-gun research, and he’s back in business.

Peck: You, by profession, when you were in active practice, are an otolaryngologist. I believe you would know a little bit about the ear and about hearing. So talk to me about why there would be a health benefit to a suppressor.

Wheeler: You’re right. I am an ear surgeon. I did treat many patients with hearing loss over the years — including from firearms — and I am one of the four authors of a position paper that has the actual facts about suppressors. It’s on DRGO’s website at It was authored by four board-certified ear, nose, and throat specialists, including two fellowship-trained neur0-otologists who do nothing but treat ear diseases. So you can find the facts there. It’s linked on our opening page at

Here’s the problem. Firearm suppressors are a cheap, safe, and simple device, really a public health windfall that could save the hearing of millions of our patients, and yet, the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Surgeons, and if you can believe it, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, the society for ear specialists, have all decided not to support suppressors as a hearing-saving device.

This is not negligence. This is a moral failure. We know that suppressors are only capable of reducing the sound of a gunshot, not completely eliminating it. It reduces the sound by about 30 decibels, down to about the level of a jackhammer. People may wonder why the naysayers and the opponents of having suppressors keep telling us that suppressors make it easier to commit gun crimes, and the answer is they know the truth. They know suppressors are not really silencers, but they are trying to deceive the public into believing that suppressors are somehow associated with violent crime. They’re not.

You’re right that it’s not enough, Peggy. It’s the same reason that instead of just wearing the old-fashioned seatbelts in our cars, we wear seatbelts and a shoulder harness, and bags as well. The earmuffs and earplugs are fine as far as they go, but they are not enough. They reduce the noise level down to, as I said, somewhere around the area of a jackhammer, in the neighborhood of 130 decibels or so. That’s still damaging. So why not use a suppressor to bring it down another 30 decibels? That is where the saving of hearing and the prevention of hearing loss comes in.

Peck: If I have your position correctly, you would then recommend using both. Is that correct? Is that the safest way to do it?

Wheeler: All three, actually, if possible.

Peck: So earplugs.

Wheeler: Yes.

Peck: Then the earmuff-type devices.

Wheeler: Yes.

Peck: Then the suppressor.

Wheeler: That’s correct. I can wear, here in California, earmuffs and earplugs when I go out to the range. The state of California has decided, because they’ve outlawed suppressors, that I should not have that extra 30 decibels of protection with a suppressor.

Peck: But in many states, people can use those, use suppressors. Is that correct or incorrect?

Wheeler: Yes, they are legal in, I believe, 42 states. I think that there are eight states that make them outright illegal. Now that’s under state law. Suppressors everywhere in the United States are very heavily regulated under a law that was passed back in the days of Al Capone. It’s a completely outdated law, and what it does is provide barriers to people getting this device that can save hearing.

Peck: What is the barrier? I mean one has to register … I mean what are the barriers? What are the typical barriers to getting the device?

Wheeler: You have to apply for a license, a transfer document of some sort from the federal government, which costs, I believe, $200, and then you wait and you wait and you wait, sometimes up to 6 months or more. Then you can have your suppressor.

Peck: At that point, the federal government gives you a document sort of like we get passports, but we don’t usually wait 6 months for a passport. But we have the document and then you can take it to a company that sells suppressors, and when you show that document, you’re able to buy one. Is that correct?

Wheeler: I believe that’s the way it works. In any case, you have to get permission from the federal government to buy this noise-reducing device. I can’t imagine, for example, having to get permission from the government, wait 6 months, and pay $200 to wear seatbelts in my car.

Peck: What would you like done about that? How would you like it handled? Would you like the federal component taken out or what exactly would be the goal of your organization?

Wheeler: Our organization does not advocate for or against any legislation, but simply put, we think that suppressors should be made available as a noise-reduction safety device much the same as earmuffs or earplugs are, because a noise-reduction safety device is what a suppressor is.

Peck: The American College of Physicians and several other organizations have been active with a number of statements about what they term “gun safety.” Another term they use is gun violence. The latest is this issue of including in a health hazard survey, when a patient is coming in, when you ask about seatbelts and you ask about drinking and you ask about smoking, you ask, “Do you own a gun?” If the answer is yes, “Do you keep it in a gun safe or in a safe place?” Your organization, and, I believe, you personally object to that. Maybe you could just explain from, again, colleague to colleague what the objection is.

Wheeler: It’s no secret that organized medicine has, for decades now, been waging a campaign against gun ownership in the United States. That amounts to prejudice against one of our enumerated civil rights, and it appears that the leaders of organized medicine are unable to put aside that bigotry against gun owners and come together so that we can save the hearing of our patients, and that’s really sad.


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