From an article in the British Columbia Medical Journal:

The practice of bloodletting began around 3,000 years ago… Existence was believed to be represented by the four basic elements – earth, air, fire and water – which in humans , were related to the four basic humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

According to this theory, being sick meant having an imbalance of the four humors. Therefore, the treatment consisted in eliminating part of the excess humor by… bleeding, purging, catharsis, diuresis, etc.

This all seems odd to us today, but it was the accepted practice for a long time.

From the notes of Tobias Lear, who was present for George Washington’s final hours:

“On December 13, 1799, George Washington woke up with a bad sore throat and began to decline rapidly. A proponent of bloodletting, he asked to be bled the next day and doctors drained around 5-7 pints in less than 16 hours. At one point, Mrs. Washington objected to the amount of blood being drained and Washington replied, “More, more”.

Again, from an article in the British Columbia Medical Journal:

There were skeptics of the practice as early as the 16th century, and studies done in the 18th and 19th centuries evaluating the results questioned the benefits.

However, “That bloodshed that has survived for so long is not an intellectual anomaly – it results from the dynamic interplay of social, economic and intellectual pressures, a process that continues to shape medical practice.”

This story came to mind when I thought about the current debate on gun violence.

On May 27, 2022, while addressing the NRA conference in Houston just days after a gun-toting teenager shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, Donald Trump said school zones unarmed left victims with no way to defend themselves. He went on to say, “As the old saying goes, the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

What Mr. Trump was actually doing was repeating the words of Wayne LaPierre at a press conference the NRA held after the Sandy Hook Massacre (2012) and again after the Parkland shootings (2018) .

In the demand to shed more blood and to advocate for more guns, I remember another supposedly centuries-old saying: “The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results.”

And if it is true that an armed wicked man has been and can be stopped by an armed good man, it is not the “alone” way.

Alternatively, some people (Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Wayne LaPierre, and former President Trump) want us to think the answer is mental illness.

From the John Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions:

Myth: Mental illness is at the root of gun violence and mass shootings.

Fact: Mental illness is not a significant risk factor or predictor of interpersonal violence. Most people with mental illness do not engage in violence against others, and most violence is caused by factors other than mental illness.

On the contrary, exposure to gun violence can cause mental illness (ie, PTSD).

In Psychology Today:

A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch found that “All mental health symptoms taken into account, only impulsiveness was associated with carrying a gun and only hostility was associated with threatening someone with a gun.” The author then states: “Let me remind you again that hostility and impulsiveness are not mental illnesses but general personality traits.”

It all sounds like George Washington’s demand for more bloodshed with the gun lobby dancing around the real point: we’ve become a gun culture, and we have too many guns. As with bloodshed, our gun culture is “the dynamic interplay of social, economic and intellectual pressures.” It took years for this strident position to settle and it will take years for it to crumble. Perhaps at some point in the future we will revisit the call for more weapons in the same way that we look at George Washington’s call for “more more” bloodshed today.

Since it appears that the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is here to stay, at least until “the dynamic interplay of social, economic and intellectual pressures” change, I would say the way to stop the ever-escalating cycle of gun violence is to drop calls for gun control and focus instead on what I think is a fundamentally conservative core value: with rights comes responsibility and accountability. Yes, you can own just about any type of firearm; the Supreme Court is on your side. But you, as a gun owner, must be responsible for how your gun is used and held accountable for any misuse.

If a child finds your gun in the nightstand and shoots himself or someone else, you are responsible. If your firearm is stolen and used in a crime, you could be held liable. If you lend someone your firearm or sell it without a thorough background check, you are responsible for any misuse. And the next step is to hold yourself civilly and legally liable for damages caused by your lack of proper caution. You can expect to be sued by those injured or by the families of those killed, you can expect to be sued for property damage (you may need to purchase insurance). And you can expect jail time and other legal penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the violent event, even if you were only indirectly responsible.

— — —

David J. Staszak lives in Saranac Lake.


BCMJ, vol. 52, No. 1, January-February 2010, pages 12-14 Premise, by: Gerry Greenstone, MD.

Tobias Lear’s File on George Washington’s Death, George Washington’s Mount Vernon

“How the ‘good guy with a gun’ became a deadly American fantasy,” PBS NewsTime

Psychology Today online June 19, 2019

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