Feature

‘Not in our lane’: Physicians rebel at idea they should discuss gun safety with patients


 

In the decade since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the United States has experienced more than 3,300 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows that that the margin of public opinion in the United States is the widest that it has been during the past 10 years in favor of taking steps to control gun violence; 59% of U.S. adults said it’s more important to control gun violence than to protect gun rights, and 35% said the opposite.

Have physicians’ opinions about gun issues in our country shifted meaningfully during that period? That’s a complex question that can be informed with the basic snapshot provided by doctors› comments to New York University (and Medscape blogger) bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan’s four video blogs on whether physicians should discuss gun safety with their patients. Dr. Caplan’s video blogs appeared on the Medscape website in 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2022.

Hundreds of physicians have posted comments to Dr. Caplan’s arguments that doctors should bring up gun safety when talking to their patients. The great majority of comments opposed his position in 2014, and that remained the case through 2022, regardless of incidents of gun-related violence. Supportive comments have been a small minority that has grown only slightly over his four video blogs.

Physicians’ lack of qualifications

The most prevalent counterarguments expressed against Dr. Caplan’s position are that physicians lack the proper knowledge to discuss gun safety with patients; and the responsibility falls on family members, certified firearms instructors, teachers, and others – but not doctors – to educate people about firearm safety.

“Then there’s a third group that says, ‘I don’t want to do this because I am too busy trying to figure out what is wrong with the patient,’ ” Dr. Caplan says.

Here are a few on-point comments that were posted to his video blogs:

  • “Unless physicians become certified firearms instructors like myself, they are not qualified to talk to patients on the subject and should advise patients to find a program and take a course.” – Dr. Ken Long, March 31, 2014
  • “Gun safety should be taught in school, just like health and sex education.” – Patricia L., Feb. 11, 2016
  • “None of my medical or surgical training or experience qualifies me as a policy expert on gun laws or regulations.” – Dr. Kelly Hyde, Dec. 23, 2018
  • “I have the Constitution hanging in my office with an NRA plaque next to it. Most MDs can’t mow their own yard.” – Dr. Brian Anseeuw, June 21, 2022

Do mental health issues trump gun talks?

Another counterargument to discussing gun safety with patients involves mental health issues that many physicians may not be trained to address. Mental health entered comments to Dr. Caplan’s video blogs in 2016 and has shaped much of the discussion since.

  • “First of all, two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. It is foolish to talk about counseling patients about gun safety, etc, and ignore the mental health issues.” – Dr. Jeffrey Jennings, Jan. 25, 2016
  • “Suicide victims and those committing mass shootings are mentally ill. ... Blame society, drugs, mental illness, easy access to illegal firearms, and poor recognition of SOS (signs of suicide).” – Dr. Alan DeCarlo, Dec. 24, 2018
  • “Yes, we have gun violence, but what is the underlying problem? Bullying? Mental issues? Not enough parental supervision? These and others are the issues I feel need to be discussed.” – T. Deese, June 24, 2022
  • “The causes of increased gun violence are mental health, problems with bullying, social media, and normalization of deviant behavior.” – Julie Johng, 2022

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