Should Your Doctor Be Allowed to Ask If You Have a Gun?

Anyone who receives regular medical care knows doctors will typically ask patients a number of questions about their habits and lifestyle. In addition to taking your height and weight and asking questions about your diet and physical activity, doctors also ask about your sexual history, drug and alcohol consumption, and other areas they feel may be pertinent to your health and wellness. Certain doctors, such as gynecologist and psychiatrists, may also ask if a patient has been a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence.

While these questions may seem a little awkward or uncomfortable, they are important to ask as these issues often play a big role in a person’s overall well being. After all, doctors’ need for sensitive, personal information about patients is the main reason patient confidentiality and privacy laws exist.

However, a 2011 Florida law has limited some of the information doctors obtain from their patients. The law specifically states doctors cannot ask patients about gun ownership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this law has been fairly controversial, especially in light of the country’s gun control debates. In fact, courts have been divided about whether or not this law should exist at all. While a state court disagreed with the law, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld it. For now, at least, it seems the law can be enforced but here are a few reasons why it could be detrimental to patient health.

Guns Have a Role in a Person’s Health

The Court of Appeals said the law was unfair because there was no legitimate health reason for doctors to know if a patient owned a gun. What they seem to be forgetting, though, is a person’s mental health is just as important as physical health. While gun ownership does not increase your risk of substance abuse like doing drugs, and it is still a significant lifestyle choice and can be indicative of a person’s mental state.

Owning a gun alone does not make a person mentally unstable. However, when taken into account with other factors it can help doctors gage a person’s frame of mind. For example, if a doctor feels a woman may be a victim of domestic violence, the fact that her partner owns a gun could play into that decision. Similarly, if a depressed patient recently purchased a gun it could indicate he or she is considering suicide. Shooting oneself is one of the most popular methods of suicide, and guns helped nearly 20,000 people take their own lives in 2011.

Accidents and Households with Children

Citizens of this country do have the right to own a gun, but many gun owners can be irresponsible. In fact, in 2007 there were 613 accidental gun deaths in the United States. Negligent gun owners are a particular concern when there are children involved. A pediatrician has every right to be concerned about children’s well being if their parents reveal they do not keep guns out of a child’s reach and under lock and key. This is especially true given that gun-related accidents caused 7,400 children to be hospitalized in 2009.

Even vigilant parents cannot watch their children every second, and if you think kids won’t get into their parents’ private areas you should check out this video. Asking parents about gun ownership isn’t an invasion of privacy — it’s a sign of concern. While gun accidents are far from the leading cause of death among children, guns are especially frightening since they can end a child’s life so quickly.

Is It an Invasion of Personal Privacy?

Those who claim asking doctors about gun ownership is a violation of privacy should also keep in mind they’re not required to answer the questions. Although giving your doctor as much information as possible is probably in your best interest, it’s acceptable to say you’d rather not discuss a certain topic. Regardless of people’s feelings on gun ownership, doctors should at least have the right to ask about topics they feel are relevant to their patients’ heath.

When push comes to shove, this is not so much a political as an ethical issue. If doctors’ aims are to save lives, a needless law to appease NRA supporters should not get in their way.