Health & wellness

Harvard researchers note danger in firearm “gag law”

Florida lawmakers caused a stir among the medical community this summer when they passed a law prohibiting doctors from asking most patients about whether they have a gun at home. Many pediatricians in particular were outraged, saying proper storage of firearms is a critical child safety issue.

The National Rifle Association supported the law, saying such questioning invades people’s privacy.

The law hit a roadblock in September, when a federal judge granted an injunction, saying the law violates free speech. But that hasn’t squelched concern from a group of Harvard researchers and others.

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The law remains on the books in Florida and similar measures have been introduced in several other states.

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“It’s going happen,” said Dr. Eric Fleegler, of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston. Eventually, he said, another state will enact what he called a “gag law.”

The law, Fleegler said, “is both harmful at the essence of what it’s dealing with, firearm-related injuries and death. But it’s also a danger at its broadest level, (because of) the fact it could be legislating what physicians and patients can talk about.”

He and colleagues at the hospital and at Harvard School of Public Health wrote an article released today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine highlighting how the country has fallen short in reducing deaths and injuries from firearms.

In 2007, the rate of deaths from firearms in the United States was 10.4 per 100,000 people. That’s more than double the goal laid out in Healthy People 2010, a government plan for public health outlined a decade earlier.

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Fleegler said the paper is meant in part to push discussion around improving safety. The general public doesn’t see what harm a law like Florida’s can do, he said. Even in talking with family and friends he often hears that they don’t understand why a physician-patient conversation about firearms is necessary, he said.

Past studies have not clearly shown whether conversations about gun safety between doctors and patients reduce injuries, the authors said.

“There’s a reason why there’s limited data on this,” Fleegler said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are prohibited from funding research of firearms and public health because it could be used to lobby Congress on the matter. The authors note that no such prohibition exists related to tobacco or obesity, topics lawmakers also discuss frequently.

Tell us what you think: What’s at stake in this debate? Is there a role for doctors in advocating for firearm safety, just as they have long advocated for car seats or keeping infants safe in cribs? Or is gun ownership a topic that should stay out of the exam room?

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.