Should Doctors Ask You About Your Guns?

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

In Florida, it's illegal for a physician to ask you if you own a gun. Pediatrician Aaron Carroll thinks this is ridiculous:

When pediatricians ask you about using car seats, they’re trying to prevent injuries. When they ask you about how your baby sleeps, they’re trying to prevent injuries. When they ask you about using bike helmets, they’re trying to prevent injuries. And when they ask you about guns, they’re trying to prevent injuries, too.

....When I ask patients and parents whether they own guns, if they tell me they do, I immediately follow up with questions about how they are stored. I want to make sure they’re kept apart from ammunition. I want to make sure they’re in a locked box, preferably in a place out of reach of children. Doing so minimizes the risks to children. That’s my goal.

When we, as physicians, ask you if you drink or smoke, it’s not so that we can judge you. It’s so we can discuss health risks with you. When we ask you about domestic violence, it’s not to act like police detectives. It’s so that we can help you make better choices for your health. When we ask you about what you eat or whether you exercise, it’s so we can help you live better and longer. We’re doctors; it’s our job.

I don't often disagree with Carroll, but I think I might here. Not about Florida's law: that really is ridiculous. The state may have an interest in making sure doctors don't give demonstrably bad advice, but it certainly doesn't have a legitimate interest in preventing them from asking simple, fact-oriented question. This represents prior restraint on non-commercial speech, and as such it's beyond the pale.

That said, should physicians ask about gun ownership? I'm not so sure. Carroll says he only wants to discuss "health risks," and that's appropriate. Doctors have expertise in the area of human health: that is, the biology and physiology of the human body. But that's not the same thing as the safety of the human body.

Not only do doctors have no special professional expertise in this area, but it's simply too wide open. Does your car have air bags? Do you ever jaywalk? Have you checked your electrical outlets lately? Is your house built to withstand an earthquake? Do you know how to work safely on your roof? Do you make sure to watch your kids in the pool? Are you planning any trips to eastern Ukraine?

I could go on forever in this vein. These are things unrelated to human physiology. If you define them all as health risks, you're simply defining every aspect of life as a health risk, and therefore your doctor's concern. That goes too far, and I don't blame people for sometimes reacting badly to it. There are certainly gray areas here, but generally speaking, if I want advice about my health, I'll see a doctor. If I want advice about gun safety, I'll talk to a gun pro. I think it might be best to leave it this way.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My view is almost certainly colored by the fact that I'm all but phobic about doctors. I hate visiting them, I hate talking to them, and I hate the fact that they never seem to really, truly respond to what I tell them. I would be very annoyed if a doctor suddenly veered off and started quizzing me about general safety issues.

I'm keenly aware that this is an obvious overreaction on my part, and I do my best to restrain it when I'm actually talking to a doctor. Nonetheless, it's there.