On ‘gunners’ and gunners

I heard the term during orientation, but didn’t stop to ask what it meant until the second week of classes.

Gunner is usually uttered with a slight amount of vitriol, so you know it’s an insult with just the inflection. From my understanding, gunners are found in graduate-level education, primarily medical school and sometimes law school. To be a gunner is to see medical school as a competition, and to desire victory at all costs: out-studying peers to rank highest in the exams and even misinforming classmates about critical concepts, in order to gain an unethical edge over their perceived competitors.

When I learned of the term’s meaning, I was a bit taken aback– people really do this? We had to claw and scratch our way into our whitecoats, through weeder courses and hours of extracurriculars. To accelerate this mindset, to progress into seeing everyone else as an enemy? That’s unbelievable to me, especially in our chosen professional path of healing. I have not yet met a true gunner at medical school. Perhaps this is because our admissions board screened them carefully, or they are very good at concealing themselves.

Instead, I have found the word used in two senses: the abstract discussion of gunners, and casually thrown around amongst friends as a jab. The former are true gunners, almost mythical creatures that haunt our dark and stormy nights. The latter are ‘gunners’– individuals that volunteer at clinics, join research teams, study rigorously, and put forth their full effort. When someone is called a ‘gunner’, they have no recourse except simple defensiveness or downplaying their activities and achievements.

The ‘gunners’ I know are earnest and caring individuals that want to ensure they will be the best physicians possible. They want to soak up as much knowledge as they possibly can, because they truly believe their efforts will benefit their future patients. To avoid the stigma and perception of a true gunner-ism, these students have retreated into the closet– hiding their extracurricular endeavors in order to avoid ridicule from their fellow students.

It’s an odd thing. We all arrived here, surviving the application and interview process, because we went above and beyond the norm. We worked hard and pushed ourselves harder to get to this point. Medicine is a passion and a call to service: we are here because we care. So, to denigrate effort, to suppress the very desire that got us here in the first place, feels so backward. It is counterproductive to our shared vision of healing– don’t work hard, just glide by, and definitely don’t stand out. Otherwise, you risk the whispers of ‘gunner’.

And this does not even reflect the term’s true use– it describes an individual that actively stifles the efforts of others in an attempt to gain prestige. To a gunner, the world of medical school is a zero-sum game and their rise must come at the cost of someone else’s fall. This perspective looks at life as a hierarchy, a caste system, or feudal kingdom that has clear winners and clear losers.

To me, ‘gunners’ are called gunners because their heartfelt passion makes others uncomfortable. It is a way to dismiss effort with a single word, to put someone down that is actively working towards bettering their future career and patients. In a darkly comedic turn, the gunner has inverted itself– ‘gunners’ are put on the other side, they are the ones that are put down, while the speaker is elevated in this zero-sum perspective.

And that’s the root of the issue– life is not a zero-sum game. One flower blossoming does not prevent another from blooming: they support and signal each other to do so, and that’s how a field can fill with daisies. What a sad view of the world, to imagine that my success precludes your happiness.

To be a nerd or a geek in decades past meant stigma and isolation; now, it is a badge of pride. If someone doesn’t have an aspect of geekiness about them, they seem a bit boring. No hobbies? No interests? No favorite movie franchises? My goodness, what do you even do with your free time? I see ‘gunner’ making that transition from deep insult to an embraced term of endearment. I hope we can move forward with the term itself, rather than eliminating it from our lexicon– the colloquial specificity to medical school means it has history and weight for generations past, but we have an opportunity to redefine it for future physicians.

We have a chance to shift the paradigm– ‘gunner’ is our word, and we should be proud of it. Let’s call those gunners what they really are: assholes. They don’t deserve a unique euphemism. We should aspire to be a ‘gunner’: to take our education and career so seriously that despite doctoring sessions, lectures, and dissections, we still rally enough energy to put shadowing and volunteer hours in while getting a leg-up on exam preparation. I’m struggling to simply pass neuro block, but I deeply respect the zeal of my fellow students that can manage this time-management juggling feat.

So far, I haven’t called anyone a gunner, but I may start tomorrow– accompanied with a high-five and a loving smile.

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