Are guns a hazard to your health?
What about smoking?
Should I be allowed to ask patients about these health risks?
I think so. How else can I educate patients about what they can do to keep themselves healthy?If someone says yes, they drink soda, I say: one can of soda a day equals fifteen pounds of extra body fat each year, so you can drink water or milk instead to prevent obesity, diabetes, or hypertension. If someone says yes, they smoke, I say: smoking harms your health, so you can quit smoking now to prevent cancer and protect your lungs and heart. And previously, if someone said yes, they owned a gun, and there were kids in the house, I would advise them to keep the bullets away from the firearms to prevent accidental (or intentional) injury and death. Or if the gun owner were depressed, I’d advise them to give away the bullets to prevent impulsive suicide (as is painfully chronicled in the powerful narrative “Time to Reconsider” in the Journal of the American Medical Association, written by the father and fiancée of a man suffering from chronic pain who impulsively killed himself). But in Florida, new legislation is being passed to make it illegal for doctors to ask about gun ownership.
Guns are a leading cause of death due to injuries, especially in the pediatric population, where guns kill kids more than any other unnatural cause except car accidents (seat belts, folks!).
A medical school gun tutorial tells a grim story of the statistics from 2006:
30,896 deaths from firearms
16,883 from suicide, 12, 791 from homicide, and 642 accidental deaths
(plus law and unknown).
Firearms were among the top 10 causes of all deaths.
34.5/100,000 African-American males die from firearms.
2.7/100,000 white females die from guns.
(CDC, 2001) (CDC, 2006).
And this doesn’t count the 200,000 gun injuries each year.
Gun injuries and death can happen to anybody exposed to a loaded gun. A friend’s son was playing alone in his grandparents’ bedroom, and found a gun in the bedside drawer. He started playing with it, and pulled the trigger. It fired. The family heard the gunshot from downstairs and ran towards the bedroom, where they found the boy lying in a pool of blood, his head split open. Luckily, they realized, the bullet had gone into the wall without hitting anybody. The recoil was so strong, however, and the boy so little, the gun flew back and split his head open, landing him in the hospital with a cracked skull—and his grandfather in police custody, until it was clear he would live.
I grew up visiting my grandparents, where World War II rifles are proudly displayed over my grandfather’s bed, and where I learned to shoot under the watch of my uncle, a Korean War veteran who traveled the country trading in gun shows. In my grandparents’ home, the guns were unloaded. Bullets were hidden from the kids. No one was hurt.
As Florida seeks to ban doctors from asking about guns in the home, with the National Rifle Association citing it as an infringement of second amendment rights, I wonder—if I’m not allowed to ask about guns, what am I allowed to ask about?
When I ask about gun ownership, I do not seek to take away the guns and infringe on the right of people to keep and bear arms. The purpose of asking about guns is to advise patients—especially parents—on ways to keep gun ownership safe.
Do you ride a bike? Wear a helmet.
Do you have a car? Wear a seat belt.
Do you have a gun in the home? Keep it unloaded with the bullets out of reach of the kids.
That’s my agenda—to prevent accidental death and injuries, in my quest for a healthier America. I think an important part of being a physician is to educate patients on what they can do to stay well. And that includes asking about gun ownership.
Are guns a hazard to your health?