A Crime For Doctors to Ask About Guns?

Pediatricians react to proposed bill that would ban them from asking about guns.

ByKATIE MOISSE, ABC News Medical Unit
January 26, 2011, 3:32 PM

Jan. 27, 2011— -- In Florida, where a 5-year-old has just been suspended after bringing a loaded .22-caliber pistol to preschool, a local politician has proposed a bill that would ban doctors from asking parents about guns at home.

"The intention of the bill is to prevent the violation of an individual's right to privacy," State Rep. Jason Brodeur said in a statement to ABC News. "The bill addresses a violation of privacy rights concerning firearms and seeks to prevent future occurrences of such violations."

Under the proposed legislation -- currently under review by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives -- a doctor could face a hefty fine or even jail time for asking a patient or a patient's family about guns in their home.

"Parents don't know what to believe and don't know why their state wants to know if they lawfully own firearms," Brodeur said. He said the purpose of the bill is to protect families from being denied treatment for refusing to answer questions about guns in their home.

But the proposal has sparked outrage among pediatricians, many of whom say asking parents about guns in the home not just their right, but their responsibility.

"Including a discussion about gun safety during checkups at a pediatrician's office is no different than encouraging parents to use car seats or keep poisons locked up," said Dr. John Moses, an associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University. "The issue here is not the right of gun ownership, but simply child safety and the prevention of tragic injuries that can be avoided by proper gun storage."

Gunshot wounds account for one in 25 admissions to pediatric trauma centers in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Parents are often not aware that unsafe storage of guns has caused many child injuries and deaths," said Dr. Neal Kaufman, professor of pediatrics and public health at the University of California, Los Angeles Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Pediatricians have a responsibility to identify possible threats to a child's safety and highlight ways parents can lessen those risks, Kaufman said.

Guns at Home: A Health Risk?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill a friend or family member than a burglar or other criminal. The best way to avoid firearm injuries and deaths is not to own a gun. Parents who do own firearms should keep them well out of children's reach with trigger locks activated and the ammunition stored separately.

"We are not trying to get rid of guns, or to report on them," said Dr. Mark Groshek, a pediatrician and physician chief of clinical strategic support at KP Colorado HealthConnections. "We want to be sure parents know how to keep guns at home in a way that protects their kids."

Some pediatricians liken talking about gun safety to discussing other risky behaviors for kids.

"Informing parents about the risks and recommended safety measures revolving around guns in the home should not be censored any more than discussions of teen sex, drug use, or other risky but reality-based behaviors," said Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician with Practical Parenting Consulting in Omaha, Neb.

Brodeur argues his bill would protect the privacy rights of Floridians without compromising care.

"There's nothing in the bill that would prevent a safety discussion about firearms like medical personnel would for swimming pools, chemicals or any other potential hazard," Brodeur said. "The bill only states that medical personnel can't ask about firearm ownership directly, record the answer or condition treatment upon the response."

Brodeur said he's heard of people being told it is a Medicaid requirement that they disclose the lawful presence of firearms in their home.

"If the overreaching federal government actually takes over health care, they're worried that Washington, D.C., is going to know whether or not they own a gun and so this is really just a privacy protection," Brodeur told Florida's News-Press.com.

"There are many safeguards in the law to protect the confidentiality of medical information, including HIPAA, so I really think this is an unrealistic concern," Groshek said. "But if this is truly a concern, I don't think the answer is to prevent pediatricians from doing their jobs. Legislators could always pass laws that further restrict the ability of the government to access this information."

An estimated 41 percent of gun-related homicides and 94 percent of gun-related suicides would not occur without access to guns, according to a 2002 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"Physicians should continue to discuss with patients the implications of keeping guns at home," wrote study author Douglas Wiebe, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives, adding that additional studies are warranted to "better understand the implications of firearm ownership."

The National Rifle Association has been accused of obstructing firearms research by blocking funding through the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

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