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Massachusetts Medical Society Against Limiting Questioning About Gun Ownership

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Today marks the 25th anniversary of National Doctor’s Day and the Massachusetts Medical Society is using the event to raise awareness about doctor and patient conversations about gun ownership and safety.A Florida law passed in 2011 makes it illegal for doctors to ask their patients if he or she owns a gun. The Massachusetts Medical Society wants to change that. A district court struck down the law following pressure from physicians who said it infringed on their First Amendment rights. In 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the law claiming the discussions were professional conduct and not speech and therefore the law represents legitimate regulation. MMS member Dr. Michael Hirsh is a pediatric trauma surgeon at UMass Memorial Health Center and medical director of the Worcester Public Health Department.

“Really the issue here is the slippery slope of having government intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship,” Hirsh said. “That’s really the crux of why the Massachusetts Medical Society stepped up on this issue.”

The National Rifle Association filed a brief with the court, saying the act protects patient privacy. There have also been fears over keeping electronic health records of who owns a gun. Hirsh, who lost a friend and fellow doctor to gun violence, helped create the Goods for Guns buyback program in the Worcester area in 2002. He says about a dozen other states are pursuing laws similar to Florida’s. He questions what he sees as a breach of a physician’s ability to protect their patients in open and trusting relationships. 

“What is the next taboo subject that somebody legislates?” Hirsh said.”Is it reproductive rights? Is it substance abuse? Tobacco use? Is it whether people are having unprotected sex that we cannot talk about?”

Hirsh adds that patients don’t have to answer when asked. Hirsh says doctors don’t have to be firearms experts to be able to talk about gun safety, likening it to a physician who may not drive speaking about seat belt usage. He adds conversations about guns are especially important with parents and kids.

“Ninety percent of gun owners who are parents have in previous polls been thought to have hidden their weapons in such a way for example that their children can’t find them,” Hirsh said. “But when the children are tasked with finding them in over 80 percent of those gun owners’ homes, the children know exactly where the guns are.”

Hirsh says an unsecured weapon in a home is a public health menace, noting statistics from Harvard School of Public Health showing having a gun in a home increases the risks of being murder, committing suicide or being killed in a domestic violence situation.  Hirsh says the American Academy of Pediatrics  recommends the three most important prevention questions to ask parents involve seat belt and car seat use, smoke alarms and if they own a gun.

“If a patient subsequently reveals that they’re depressed, they feel like they feel like they are in bad relationship, if they feel that they have very inquisitive children that get into every drawer and cabinet in the house if they’re left unsupervised…this are all the types of indicators for potential gun fatality or injury.”

Jim Wallace is executive director of the Massachusetts-based Gun Owners’ Action League. He says while there isn’t legislation like the Florida law currently being considered in the Bay State, adds the organization’s members would question why doctors are so intent on asking these questions. He says doctors should stick to what they know best adding that if a patient feels the questions are intrusive, it could drive a wedge between the doctor and patient.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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