Gun Control 2013: Should Doctors Be Allowed to Ask About Patient Gun Ownership?

A Colorado doctor is leading the push for doctors to inquire about patients' gun ownership, considering the shocking fact that almost 20,000 people commit suicide with guns yearly — a little more than half of all suicides in the United States.

But it wasn't the statistics that led Dr. Frank Dumont to champion this cause. One of his favorite patients committed suicide after a sharp decline into severe depression.

"He was one of those people where you see them on the schedule for the day and you just smile," Dr. Dumont said. "You just realize you get a chance to chat with someone who feels like a friend."

Dr. Dumont suspected his patient was depressed and had prescribed him antidepressants, but now regrets not asking him about his gun ownership because of what happened just months later. The patient's wife called in a panic asking for an emergency appointment because Dr. Dumont's favorite patient had shot himself in the head with a shotgun.

He had always asked his patients about suicidal ideations, but never thought to ask about whether or not they had guns in their homes. It's a decent enough question to ask of suicidal patients, as most people who attempt suicide without a firearm don't succeed.

"The likelihood of their dying is of an order of magnitude lower," said Harvard suicide prevention researcher Dr. Matthew Miller. "Instead of there being a 90% [or more] chance of death, there's a greater than 90% chance that they'll live."

In Wyoming, the self-inflicted gunshot suicide numbers are even worse. About two-thirds of all suicides in the state are completed with a firearm.

The Affordable Care Act specifically states that doctors are not prohibited from asking patients about gun ownership. While some may see this as an infringement of privacy, medical professionals like Dumont fear that not asking could endanger depressed patients who have easy access to firearms.

When President Obama restored federally-funded gun safety research in January, many only saw the financial burden it would place on the country, and not the benefits that Dumont is trying to get others to recognize. He thinks that more doctors should be open to to sharing the health risks associated with guns.

"I have a lower threshold for asking follow-up questions, asking the same thing a different way," he said. "Or if I have any inkling, starting to push a little bit further, and say, 'Well, so you're not really thinking about it, but have you ever thought about how you would go about it if you were going to?' And I have a lower threshold for asking about a weapon in the home as well."

In the end, it's not about whether or not these people should be allowed to own guns; it's their constitutional right to do so. But doctors should be allowed to inquire about their patients' gun ownership if it pertains to the safety of the patients. This is about better mental health care, not gun control, and Dr. Dumont's ideas should be taken seriously.

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Christine Salek

Christine is a writer and perpetual student living in Des Moines, Iowa. Her writing can also be found on Medium, the Gonzaga Bulletin, and ResearchGate.

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