Suicide, Guns and Free Speech
I live in Florida. Land of the profoundly weird and frequently stupid. Like the guy charged with illegally feeding an alligator after the gator bit off his hand. Or an image of the Virgin Mary appearing on a grilled cheese sandwich. We have wild pythons big enough to eat deer and a wanna-be plastic surgeon who injected women’s derrieres with Fix-a-Flat (Don’t try this at home.)
On July 30, we learned that the Florida Department of Health – with the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott – would appeal a federal judge’s recent ruling that blocked the implementation of a new law that barred physicians from asking their patients about guns. With this appeal, Florida has set the gold standard for government-sanctioned waste and stupidity.
Why would a doctor ask a patient about guns, you ask? There are a lot of reasons. Maybe a doctor wants to know if there are guns in a patient’s home because 2,793 children and teens were killed by firearms in 2009. About one third of those deaths – 938 – were accidental or suicide. Maybe the doctor wants to know if the guns in a child’s home are trigger-locked or safely stored in a gun safe.
Maybe a doctor stitching the busted lip of a woman abused by her husband wants to know if there are weapons in the home. Or maybe a patient has depression and the doctor knows that about half of the 36,000 people who commit suicide every year do so with a gun and most of those people have a mental illness. There are many good reasons for a doctor would ask these questions.
The bill is the byproduct of a controversial story about a pediatrician in central Florida who asked a patient’s mother if there were firearms in the home. When she refused to answer, he gave her 30 days to find a new pediatrician. The doctor says he routinely asks patients about risk factors, such as texting while driving and whether there is a pool at the home. Sounds like a good doctor to me. The National Rifle Association disagreed.
Backed by the NRA and passed by Florida lawmakers in 2011, the law says doctors “should refrain from making a written inquiry or asking questions concerning the ownership of a firearm or ammunition by the patient or by a family member of the patient, or the presence of a firearm in a private home or other domicile of the patient or a family member of the patient. Notwithstanding this provision, a health care practitioner or health care facility that in good faith believes that this information is relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others, may make such a verbal or written inquiry.”
A doctor also “may not discriminate against a patient based solely upon the patient’s exercise of the constitutional right to own and possess firearms or ammunition” and “should refrain from unnecessarily harassing a patient about firearm ownership during an examination.” Penalties for breaking the law include a fine of $10,000 and possible suspension or revocation of a doctor’s license.
How can the NRA, which is so rabidly devoted to our Second Amendment right to bear arms, care so little for a physician’s First Amendment right to free speech? How can a bunch of lawmakers predict what a physician needs to know to provide responsible medical care?
I had a friend who killed himself last year – with a gun. I do not know if his physician discussed guns with him. I do know this. I have tried to kill myself – twice. When I was in my last major depression my nurse practitioner and therapist asked me if I was thinking about killing myself. I told them that the only thing stopping me was my daughter. Their next question: Have you thought of how you would do it?
I said pills. The next questions: “Do you have the pills? Have you thought about how you would get them?” they asked.
Now, imagine I had said “gun” instead of “pills.”
“Do you have a gun? Have you thought about how you would get one?”
These questions are vital. They can save lives.
I remember after answering these questions my nurse practitioner asked me to sign a contract promising to call her if I was going to “do it.” At the time it seemed ridiculous. “I’ll sign it but it means nothing,” I told her. “If I’m going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself.”
But when I started ruminating on killing myself, that stupid contract kept breaking my concentration. Did the contract save my life? I don’t know. In hindsight, the contract still sounds absurd. But it was one more obstacle in my way. You throw enough obstacles – big or small – in the path of someone planning suicide and it just might stop them.
So, why would we outlaw those questions?
Stapleton, C. (2012). Suicide, Guns and Free Speech. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 9, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/depression/2012/08/suicide-guns-and-free-speech/