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Mixing Medicine and Politics: Doctors Asking about Gun Ownership

By: Ashleigh Meyer

“Does anyone in your family have a history of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or gun ownership?”

This question, absurd as it sounds, may be asked by your doctor as part of standard patient screening. A proposed Massachusetts law would, if passed, call upon medical doctors to “establish a program for firearm screening and counseling,” as a part of routine patient care. The bill, H.2005, was proposed by physician and Boston Representative Jon Santiago.

Essentially, between checking your blood pressure and asking about your exercise habits, your doctor could inquire as to whether you have firearms in your home, how many, where and how they’re kept, and why you own them. The text of the bill is very unclear about the type and amount of data medical providers could collect. After the screening, anyone who “screens positive for firearms in the home,” as the bill phrases it (much like you might screen positive for cancer risk), doctors are to offer safety education and counseling of an unspecified variety. It is unclear whether the counseling would be mandatory.

Naturally, the proposed legislation has received backlash from gun rights activists and Second Amendment supporters who argue that deeply biased media coverage has led to a backwards and unfair representation of gun owners in the United States.

Doctor Val Finnell, MD, of Pennsylvania, describes the law as an abuse and perversion of the medical model that lays out the procedure for observation and identification of disease, and is the basis of medical practice throughout the world.

“Guns are not pathogens,” says Dr. Finnell. “The presence of a pathogen would result in a disease, but millions of people own and safely operate guns every day. This type of legislation is all about anti-gun zealots in the public health sector treating guns as a pathogen in order to push an agenda.”

The ownership of firearms, which cannot be tested for disease markers, does not meet the criteria necessary to establish causation for any disease, including a predisposition to suicide or homicide. Dr. Finnell asserts doctors who distort the legitimate application of the medical model should have their license revoked.

There is also great concern and frustration regarding the absence of fair and balanced research. Those who support this type of legislation claim that screening for guns is just like screening for alcohol and tobacco, or seatbelt and infant car seat usage. There is substantial, well-documented and peer-reviewed data to prove that seatbelt usage saves lives, and that smoking causes cancer. Research on gun violence, publications on the subject, and media coverage of gun related incidents, however, have consistently failed to consider the positive effects of gun ownership, such as lives saved and self-defense usage. They also fail to account for the hundreds of millions of guns in the United States which exist without accident or injury every day.

According to the 2018 edition of the Small Arms Survey – a publication from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies of Geneva – Americans only make up 4 percent of the global population, but account for more than 40 percent of world-wide civilian-owned firearms. There are more than 393 million firearms owned by America civilians, which means there are substantially more guns than there are people in the United States. If the presence of guns in the home signaled the inevitability of an incident - suicide or homicide - people would die by the thousands (conservatively) every day at the end of a barrel.

It is unclear whether the personal information shared with your doctor about guns and gun ownership would be protected under HIPAA, and with whom medical providers would be expected to share that information.

“Mandatory probing for gun ownership raises huge patient privacy concerns, especially given the tendency of Massachusetts lawmakers and bureaucrats like those in the Department of Veterans Affairs to use information to strip Second Amendment rights from law abiding citizens without trial or due process,” Ryan Flugaur, Senior Political Director of the National Association for Gun Rights, told Gunpowder Magazine.

The politicization of medical care and treatment could have unintended consequences. If people don’t trust their doctors, there’s a good chance they won’t go to see them. Flugaur says the best course of action for patients asked about their gun ownership is simply to decline to answer.

“Doctors should not be forced to placate anti-gun politicians by putting a gun control agenda in front of their relationships with patients,” Flugaur said.

This is not the first time legislation of this nature has been proposed or that the medical community has come under scrutiny for asking patients about guns. In 2011, Florida enacted a “gag law” that prevented doctors from inquiring about firearms unless “in good faith” the questions were necessary for patient safety. After years of litigation, though, the law was overruled as unconstitutional in 2017. Several other states have attempted to pass similar gag laws and have been unsuccessful.

Introducing politics into the exam room is dangerous and destructive. Treating simple gun ownership as a disease, and a deadly one at that, is forcing a political agenda into essential medical care. It stands in direct violation of patient confidentiality and the Second Amendment rights ensured by our Constitution.

Ashleigh Meyer is a professional writer and political correspondent from Virginia.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.