Health

Texas May Ban Doctors From Discussing Guns With Their Patients

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Under a proposed bill currently being considered in Texas, doctors wouldn’t be allowed to ask their patients whether there are any firearms in their homes — and could be subject to punishment from the Texas Medical Board if they do initiate any conversations about gun safety in the office.

The lawmaker who’s sponsoring the measure, Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R), is backed by the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association. He believes that the federal government is inappropriately reaching into doctors’ offices to figure out who owns guns.

“Pediatricians are asking children away from their parents, ‘Do you have guns in your house?’ and then reporting this on the electronic health records, and then the federal government, frankly, has access to who has guns and who doesn’t,” Spitzer told the Texas Tribune in a recent interview. He added that asking about gun ownership is “not appropriate” in this setting.

But health professionals have long maintained that, as guns threaten to surpass car accidents as the leading cause of deaths among young Americans, it’s important to be able to broach this subject with their patients. About 10,000 kids are killed or injured by guns each year, many in tragic accidents that could have been prevented with more careful storage. Pediatricians want to have the opportunity to talk about how to safely store legal firearms to ensure they’re out of the reach of young children — especially if there are any signs of mental health issues in the home.

The American Medical Association has explicitly instructed doctors to counsel their patients about gun safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has recently gotten more active in lobbying for stronger gun control legislation, compares firearm storage counseling to discussions about wearing seatbelts. “Child health care professionals can and should provide effective leadership in efforts to prevent gun violence, injury, and death,” the organization concluded in a policy paper on the issue.

Nonetheless, states have recently moved to restrict doctors in this area. In 2011, Florida became the first state in the country to pass a so-called “physician gag law” that bans doctors from asking their patients about guns — a policy that was upheld by a federal court last summer. Since then, the NRA has pushed similar measures in states like Alabama, North Carolina, West Virginia, Minnesota, and Oklahoma — forcing pediatricians to tread lightly on the topic of gun violence prevention.

In fact, the NRA has suppressed medical professionals’ efforts to prevent gun violence for decades. In the 1990s, the group successfully stripped funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s gun research programs, which has stifled attempts to collect scientific data that could shed insight into gun violence prevention. In 2013, President Obama used an executive action to lift those restrictions and allow the CDC to research gun violence for the first time in nearly two decades.

In Texas, the doctors who work with kids are hoping that Spitzer’s legislation — which has been referred to a public health committee — doesn’t get a chance to advance any further. “As a pediatric [emergency room] doc, one of the worst things you have to do is sit down with the family and explain that the child has died, or may never be the same, because of an unintended gunshot wound,” Gary Floyd, a pediatrician and a board member of the Texas Medical Association, told the Texas Tribune.

Lone State lawmakers are also considering several other measures to expand gun rights, including a bill that would allow college students to carry concealed weapons on campus and a bill that would allow Texans to openly carry guns in public places.