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Should Doctors Play A Role In Preventing Gun Violence?

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, poses for a photo at the hospital in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Doctors already ask us about how much we smoke and drink, our sex life and diet. Should they also be asking about guns? It’s a hotly debated question.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis, is working with other agencies to help physicians understand how and when to talk to patients about gun ownership and storage.

He said health care providers can play a role in preventing acts of violence.

“It is possible to involve family, and obviously involve the person who’s the topic of the discussion, in a conversation about should the firearms be relocated temporarily?” he asked. “Should they [guns] be dispensed of on a permanent basis?”

He’s not suggesting physicians screen all patients, just ones with major risk factors, such as severe mental illness, substance addiction, suicidal thoughts or a history of abuse. Once a doctor has the information, they can decide whether to intervene.

“All of these are things that might impair a person’s judgment with regard to using a firearm,” he said.

But some doctors don’t believe patients’ gun habits have anything to do with their health care.

Arthur Przebinda is a diagnostic imaging specialist in Los Angeles and project director the advocacy group Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership. He called patient gun screenings “absolutely inappropriate.”

“This is a matter of personal choice and personal privacy,” he said. “It’s none of the doctor’s business what kind of guns a patient has, how many, and what they do with them.”

He acknowledged that the question might be necessary in specific situations.

In California, there’s nothing restricting gun talk in the doctor’s office. But a handful of other states have legal restrictions on what doctors can say about firearms.

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