There aren’t many issues as divisive as guns. In fact, there’s probably just one other – abortion. But today, the national debate is about guns.
The December tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, led to the most recent discussion of gun control, which resulted in Wednesday’s announcement by President Obama to strengthen America’s firearms laws.
The President announced plans for a ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and new gun trafficking laws to crack down on the spread of weapons across the country.
Some of President Obama’s Gun Control Proposals:
• Requiring background checks for all gun buyers [needs congressional approval] • Ban certain semiautomatic rifles [needs congressional approval] • Require a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines [needs congressional approval] • Prohibit manufacturing, importation, possession and sale of armor-piercing bullets [needs congressional approval] • New gun trafficking laws with serious penalties [needs congressional approval] • Provide incentives for police departments to hire officers for schools and mental-health counselors [Something the NRA would likely support as it has called for armed guards in every school] • Require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations • Direct the Center for Disease Control to conduct research into the causes and prevention of gun violence • Asking Congress to provide $10 million for the CDC to conduct research on gun violence • Launch a national responsible gun ownership program • Nominating B. Todd Jones to be permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives [needs Senate confirmation; he is currently acting director]
President Obama said he would use “whatever weight this office holds” to get gun laws changed and urged citizens across the country to reach out to lawmakers to promote and endorse these efforts of change. “The only way we can change is if the American people demand it,” said the President.
The details of the proposals will be vigorously debated for a long time. For our purposes here at Physicians News, let’s examine one specific proposal: Physician involvement in gun control.
The White House provided background information for Wednesday’s announcement including the following passages regarding the role of physicians and other health care providers in gun violence:
PRESERVE THE RIGHTS OF HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS TO PROTECT THEIR PATIENTS AND COMMUNITIES FROM GUN VIOLENCE: We should never ask doctors and other health care providers to turn a blind eye to the risks posed by guns in the wrong hands.
· Clarify that no federal law prevents health care providers from warning law enforcement authorities about threats of violence: Doctors and other mental health professionals play an important role in protecting the safety of their patients and the broader community by reporting direct and credible threats of violence to the authorities. But there is public confusion about whether federal law prohibits such reports about threats of violence. The Department of Health and Human Services is issuing a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits these reports in any way.
· Protect the rights of health care providers to talk to their patients about gun safety: Doctors and other health care providers also need to be able to ask about firearms in their patients’ homes and safe storage of those firearms, especially if their patients show signs of certain mental illnesses or if they have a young child or mentally ill family member at home. Some have incorrectly claimed that language in the Affordable Care Act prohibits doctors from asking their patients about guns and gun safety. Medical groups also continue to fight against state laws attempting to ban doctors from asking these questions. The Administration will issue guidance clarifying that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit or otherwise regulate communication between doctors and patients, including about firearms.
Some of these concerns stem from rulings such as Florida’s recent injunction against enforcement of a law that would have prohibited doctors from asking patients about gun ownership in many instances, saying the prohibition impinged on doctors’ First Amendment right to speak with their patients about gun safety.
Conservative groups like Gun Owners of America claim that instead of restricting the public’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, we should instead require school principals to carry guns to avoid future Sandy Hook tragedies. But how would that principal prevent a shooting at a movie theatre, like in Aurora, CO? Do we now have to arm the ticket-taker and the popcorn kid?
Another argument against gun control is that it’s not a gun problem but one of mental health. So those conservative groups are advocating physician involvement, right? Wrong.
While mass shootings are the fault of mental disease, those conservative groups do not want physicians to ask questions (violation of their privacy rights); the government should not have a compiled list of mentally ill patients (the ‘Big Brother’ conspiracy); and prescription medication is evil (a continuation of ‘Big Bro’).
So, instead of – pardon the pun – shooting down all of the proposals to make our children and all citizens safer, let’s put aside partisan aspirations and agree that change is necessary. It’s time.