BMA says no tests for mass killers

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The Independent Online
Britain's doctors have called for stricter firearms controls but have warned that medical and psychiatric tests on gun licence applicants will not prevent mass killings such as those in Dunblane and Tasmania.

The British Medical Association has told a parliamentary committee investigating firearms laws that such crimes cannot be predicted and doctors do not want to be involved in testing would-be gun owners.

"It is not possible from a medical viewpoint to assist in any reliable way with the prediction of those positively safe with firearms nor those who are unsafe," said Dr Mac Armstrong, secretary of the BMA, in a letter to the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs

The committee is investigating firearms laws in the wake of the massacre in Dunblane, in the Central region, in March when 16 children and their teacher were shot dead.

There have been suggestions that doctors should be required to assess the past medical and psychiatric history of gun certificate applicants

The BMA published its evidence to the committee yesterday four days after the slaughter of 35 people by a gunman in Port Arthur in the Australian state of Tasmania again raised the issue of firearms controls.

After consulting BMA members Dr Armstrong told the committee that tests by doctors would not prevent such tragedies happening and "we would be very reluctant to see the issue of any such certificate made dependent on a single medical report".

He added: "We would particularly resist any suggestions that a GP should be the sole medical referee for an application for a certificate permitting the possession of handguns or automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Even a specialist psychiatric mental state examination resulting in a `normal' report will not obviate the possible future development of symptoms.

"Past history may give clues to future illness and past violent behaviour is considered the best predictor of future violent behaviour, but only a tiny minority of patients with diagnosed psychiatric illness are dangerous and we suspect that most violent offences involving firearms are carried out by people who are not mentally ill."

He went on: "The BMA recommends that the Government considers further tightening of the regulations on the types of firearms legally available in this country."

The BMA is worried both that individual doctors could be blamed for approving certificates for gun owners who later commit murder and that the debate about how to prevent mass killings risks stigmatising the mentally ill.

Dr Armstrong said yesterday: "We are really rather concerned with the suggestion that these extraordinary and tragic events have something to do with mental illness . . . There is an unfortunate possibility that if we let this drift that the public will come to associate mental illness with a rather mediaeval notion of danger."

The BMA also issued guidelines on the transplant of animal organs into humans yesterday. It said that such operations should only be carried out when there was a reasonable chance of success and that preference should be given to using human organs where possible.

There should be a supervisory body monitoring such cases, it said, patients should be told about the risks and allowed to refuse transplants from animals and children should not be involved in the early trials.