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Posted at 06:56 PM ET, 11/09/2011

Should doctors be allowed to ask about guns in the home?

Should doctors be permitted to routinely ask about the presence of firearms in their patients’ homes?

An article published Thursday morning in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine argues that they should -- but that their right to do so is under attack.

Eric W. Fleegler of Children’s Hospital Boston writes that a law passed in Florida in June would have prohibited doctors from routinely asking whether patients had firearms at home “unless [such] information is relevant to patient’s medical care or safety or safety of others.” The legislation highlights the potential for harassment, discrimination and insurance repercussions when such information is made part of a patient’s medical record. Though in September a U.S. District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction blocking the law on the grounds that it violates constitutional free speech protections, similar laws have been proposed (but not ultimately passed) in six other states, according to the article.

Fleegler argues that asking about the presence of firearms during routine visits allows pediatricians and other health-care providers to offer guidance as to the safe storage and handling of guns with an eye toward protecting patients from harm.

The argument was spurred, Fleegler reports, by a Florida mother’s refusal to answer her child’s doctor’s questions about guns in the home, questions the mother reportedly found “invasive” and “extremely personal.” The physician reportedly instructed the mother to find a new pediatrician, noting that he routinely asks about the presence of other potential hazards such as swimming pools and tailors his guidance according to the response.

“Morbidity and mortality from fırearm injury represent a ubiquitous and costly epidemic,” Fleegler and his co-authors conclude. “But if physicians are not allowed to ask about fırearms as a health issue, then they cannot even attempt to work toward prevention of injury. The only way to deal with a problem is to talk about it, not to suffer in silence.”

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