Doctors Have a Right (and a Duty) to Ask About Guns

Not a medicine cabinet.

Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP

In a nation with more than 30,000 annual deaths from gunfire, and more than 70,000 injuries, promoting the safe storage and handling of guns is an obvious task for public health professionals. At least, it should be.

As a paper published online this week at the Annals of Internal Medicine argues, physicians have both a legal right and professional duty to ask patients about gun ownership and storage. Doctors routinely ask about other risk factors, including cigarettes and alcohol. And a 2003 study suggested that counseling on gun safety had a positive influence on safe storage of firearms. At least 278 people were accidentally shot by children in 2015; so far this year, the tally is at least 94. When toddlers are shooting mothers, the need for safe gun practices couldn’t be more obvious.

But in its quest to elevate the Second Amendment to a place so sacred that questions about guns are deemed blasphemous, the gun movement has concluded that physicians who deal with the gruesome consequences of gun violence have no business trying to prevent more of it.

The movement is finding support from courts as well as legislators. In December, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld Florida’s “docs vs. Glocks” law, which restricts the speech and professional parameters of physicians, preventing doctors from asking questions that some gun owners might find intrusive. The law, which the court has agreed to reconsider en banc, is a sad jumble. It seeks to protect sensitive gun owners from discomfort while still allowing “good faith” inquiries by physicians if questions are “relevant.”

But because physicians who violate the law are subject to discipline by the Florida Board of Medicine, they may simply opt out of conversation entirely rather than depend on others to decide who acts in good faith, and which questions are relevant.  

This is how extreme ideology compounds tragedy. Other states, including Missouri and Montana, have dabbled in restrictions on doctors as legislators cater to a gun movement that is growing more extreme.

Remarks from the podium at this weekend’s annual meeting of the National Rifle Association are sure to feature a long list of bogeymen, although some old favorites -- like President Barack Obama, who never did get around to confiscating everyone’s guns -- may be supplanted by some new ones. (Safe prediction: The NRA will say that Hillary Clinton now wants to confiscate them.)

The gun movement has an interest in fomenting paranoia. Public officials don’t. Confidential questions about gun habits, like questions about driving, smoking and drinking, are legitimate medical inquiries. Legislators in Florida and elsewhere should make it clear that physicians who competently perform their jobs will not be punished.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.