SHOULD DOCTORS ASK SUICIDAL PATIENTS ABOUT GUN OWNERSHIP?
A NEW STUDY IN THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF MEDICINE SAYS YES
May 15, 2017
“Docs vs. Glocks” is an issue that has arisen in conjunction with Second Amendment rights to gun ownership in the United States. While some states have tried to make it illegal for doctors to question their patients about the presence of firearms in the home, even patients who are suicidal or who have family members who are suicidal, those laws have always been overturned.
The National Rifle Association predictably takes a hard stance: “Doctors do not receive firearm safety training in medical school, and advising patients about the many nuances of gun ownership is far outside their field of expertise… And if you’re thinking these guidelines are merely about safety, they come directly from journals that seek to treat firearm ownership as a health epidemic.”
Yet it remains an issue for doctors, especially in rural areas. Doctors routinely ask if their patients smoke or wear their seat belts, but some are reluctant to ask about gun ownership. In some states, doctors are prevented from collecting data on firearm ownership, and even the Affordable Care Act prohibits doctors from collecting information on gun ownership.
Countless studies about suicide prevention point to one effective measure that saves lives: Eliminating access to the means of killing oneself. In the U.S., where 51% of suicides are completed with firearms and household firearm ownership is common, reducing a suicidal person's access to firearms will usually be accomplished by appealing to individual decision, for example, by counseling at-risk people and their families to temporarily store household firearms away from home or otherwise making household firearms inaccessible to the at-risk person until they have recovered.
A recent American Journal of Medicine commentary proposed that suicide in the United States could be reduced if physicians counseled at-risk individuals and their families to temporarily store firearms so that they cannot be used for self-harm. The authors suggested that health and behavioral health care providers could provide information about the methods and benefits of temporarily storing guns to prevent suicide among people in emotional crisis and those who are struggling with PTSD, substance abuse, or other problems that may put them at risk of suicide.
Clergy, firearms instructors, and gun retailers would also be well-suited to convey this information. They noted that lethal means counseling as a method of preventing suicide is supported by the research and that “many of the major successes in reducing suicide in other countries have had little to do with improving mental health,” but are based on reducing access to lethal means. These successes include the change to carbon monoxide-free gas for cooking in Britain and restrictions on the sale of pesticides in Sri Lanka.