Opinion: As an ER doctor, I saw how often guns kill. Don’t put them under your Christmas tree

Guns you bring into your home will more likely kill you than an intruder.
The gun you bring into your home is 15 times more likely to kill you or a family member than it will an intruder, the writer says.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

During my emergency medicine internship in the Midwest, one of my first patients was a 4-year-old boy with a gunshot wound. The bullet came from his father’s .357 magnum, which the youngster had found. As he played with the gun, he accidentally shot himself in the upper thigh. The bullet’s kinetic energy was so powerful in his tiny body, that despite being shot in the leg, many of the boy’s internal abdominal organs were traumatized.

He died as we frantically tried to save his life.

When that boy’s father bought his gun, I suspect that he never, ever imagined the devastating personal loss that would result from that decision. By all accounts, he was a responsible father. Responsible or not, his son is dead.

In the throes of the current holiday shopping season, I often hear radio ads promoting guns as an ideal gift. They make owning a gun sound so benign, so American, so patriotic.


I have worked in both inner-city and small-town emergency rooms. I have treated hundreds of gunshot victims and pronounced so many patients dead from gunshot wounds that I prefer not to keep count.

Guns don’t mean anything positive to me. They signify only death and destruction. They are certainly nothing to put in a festive box with a bow under a Christmas tree.

When you buy a gun, you may think you are purchasing a weapon to protect your family, your home or your possessions. Perhaps you want to own a weapon in case society or the government breaks down and you need to defend yourself in troubled times. You may as well be worrying about a zombie apocalypse. Whatever reason you have, let me disabuse you of the notion that you are somehow safer with a gun in your home. You aren’t.

Here are some facts that the holiday gun ads won’t tell you.

Nearly 40,000 Americans died from gunshot wounds in 2017, year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. That includes about 14,500 murders, nearly 24,000 suicides and 2,000 accidental deaths.

That gun you bring into your home is at least 15 times more likely to kill you or a family member than it will kill an intruder, my analysis of the data shows.

I know what you are thinking: “You don’t know me. I’m responsible. I’ll keep my gun locked up, separate from the ammunition.” You may hide it from your children. You may do everything in your power to never let it be used against you or your family. But children are smart, and they can be cunning. They will know where you keep your gun and will figure out how to get their hands on it.


Alcohol or drugs may dull your senses and cause you to make a fatal slip in judgment. Rage may overcome you or someone you love and suddenly someone is reaching for a weapon. Deep depression may overwhelm reason. And when these things happen, a gun provides a readily accessible, efficient, and rapid killing machine. And kill they will.

I’ve had to tell family after family that their loved one died from a gunshot wound. I’ve felt the warm blood on my hands as it drains out of a gunshot victim’s body. Without question, the hardest part of my job as an ER physician was to witness the profound sadness and grief associated with a family member dying because of a firearm. In the moment, the reason for the shooting was irrelevant.

I do not dispute your right to keep and bear arms. I support the Constitution. But just because you have to the right to do something, doesn’t mean you should.

The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and togetherness. Adding a gun to the mix is neither festive nor joyous. It’s just dangerous.

Steven Sainsbury is a hospice and geriatric physician in San Luis Obispo. He was a full-time emergency room physician for 25 years.