Alex Proimos, via Wikimedia Commons

Taverner via Wikimedia Commons

A typical visit to the doctor will always elicit certain questions. Drinking habits, smoking history, illicit drug use, mental health status, and even sexual partner history.

For most, these questions are routine and don’t cause any pause. However, medical institutions around the country are experimenting with a new line of questioning: gun ownership status.

Comparing gun safety conversations with seatbelt and bike helmet precautions, doctors are diving into their newfound gun control role. The question is: does this conversation have a place in the doctor’s office, or is it just a tool to track and restrict gun ownership?

Doctors Ask About Guns

Recently, The Atlantic published a piece titled The Doctor Will Ask About Your Gun Now that explored the nuance of this latest medicinal trend. Many physicians interviewed for the article argued that inquiring about gun safety makes perfect sense in the doctor’s office.

Emergency-medicine physician Emmy Betz explained:

“It’s the same way that we encourage people to wear seat belts and not drive while intoxicated, to exercise.”

When put in those terms, it’s hard to initially see any harm in encouraging safe gun ownership at the doctor’s after all. Pamphlets are a-plenty encouraging safe sex practices amongst other safe social engagement practices.

However, the article does point out that this encroachment of firearms discussions in the medical community isn’t new. The article explains:

“Not so long ago, powerful physicians argued that if guns were causing so much harm, people should just quit them.”

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Recalling a 1990s New York Times interview with then-CDC Injury Center Director Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the article points to the attempt to make gun ownership a societal faux pas:

“We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like we did with cigarettes. It used to be that smoking was a glamour symbol, cool, sexy, macho. Now it is dirty, deadly and banned.”

Is that why doctors ask about guns?

The argument could be made that society has swapped the unhealthy cigarette habit with others equally, if not just as dangerous. Regardless, the reality is gun ownership is just not viewed the same by gun owners as vices such as smoking.

Not a connection, a right

It has been my experience that there are two types of gun owners. You have the kind that broadcast their ownership via vehicle decals, flags, and apparel.

Then you have the type more in line with myself; I own firearms, but I don’t broadcast it. The second group points to the difficulty the medical community and advocates for gun control measures have with their messaging and initiatives.

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Co-founder of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine Paul Hsieh wrote that gun owners:

“…find the question about firearms ownership intrusive in a different way than questions about substance abuse or sexual partners.”

At first blush, this seems counterintuitive. Indeed, questions surrounding something so intimate as sexual habits or what an individual puts into one’s body are more intrusive than whether they own weapons.

The reason becomes more apparent when we dive into what doctors can do with said information.

One way or another

The article explains that while doctors can:

“…tell someone with diabetes to stop having soda three times a day, but they can’t literally take soda away from a patient. With guns, they might be able to.”

The above alludes to some states that have laws in place that allow doctors to engage with law enforcement and the courts to remove guns from a patient if they feel necessary. The Biden administration is pushing a similar effort nationwide, known as the National Extreme Risk Protection (ERPO) Resource Center.

Readers may know this better as “red flag” laws.

That’s the reason doctors ask about guns.

The Department of Justice notes that:

“ERPO laws, which are modeled off domestic violence protection orders, create a civil process allowing law enforcement, family members (in most states), and medical professionals or other groups (in most states) to petition a court to temporarily prohibit someone at risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing and possessing firearms for the duration of the order.”

While it might seem obvious what constitutes a risk, the reality is that risk is a goalpost that can be moved by political pressure. Is someone at risk because they see a mental health professional?

Is someone “at risk” if they are a combat veteran? Is someone “at risk” if they are a white Christian?

Eventually, merely owning a gun will be deemed “at risk.”

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More harm than good

Firearm-injury-prevention researcher at UC Davis Amy Barnhorst explains:

“There’s a lot more psychological meaning behind firearms for people than there is for sodas.”

That’s because of a little thing called the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms allows citizens to defend their lives, families, and homes.

Gun ownership allows citizens to provide protection not just for their most prized possessions but from their government in the event it is required.

Some states have tried to keep doctors from discussing gun ownership, as the article explains:

“In the past couple of decades, some states have toyed with laws that curtail doctor’s ability to talk with patients about firearms and the information they can collect, to assuage gun owners’ privacy concerns.”

Rightfully so, documenting whether patients own guns or not sounds a lot like a firearms registry. The push to incorporate guns into the doctor’s office under the pretense of safety will undoubtedly make patients less safe.

Mental health counselor Jake Wiskerchen explains how many patients:

“…across America right now who own guns and won’t come to counseling because they don’t want their rights taken away for real or imagined reasons.”

Treating medical conditions and mental health issues is where medicine should remain and stay. Otherwise they risk sacrificing care for gun control.

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