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Boston proposes state law requiring doctors to ask about guns in homes

Health care providers would be required to play a larger role in addressing gun violence, and more drug offenders could receive treatment instead of punishment, as part of legislation that Mayor Martin J. Walsh plans to push on Beacon Hill this year.

Walsh administration officials said Wednesday that they will ask lawmakers to approve a bill requiring doctors to ask patients about guns in their homes to help identify risks of suicide and domestic violence.

“This is a great way for the medical field to help identify any red-flag issues,” Boston Police Commissioner William Gross said in a briefing with reporters. “It’s to put another tool in the physician’s belt to help out the victims.”


Some health care providers already ask patients about their safety, but this kind of screening is not required by law.

“We’ve lost a number of patients to gun violence,” said Phillomin Laptiste, executive director of Bowdoin Street Health Center in Dorchester.

Laptiste said the health center asks its patients questions such as: “Do you feel safe in the home?” and “Are you being threatened?” Depending on their answers, the center connects patients with resources that can help.

Dr. Alain A. Chaoui, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement Wednesday that, “when appropriate, a physician, as part of a detailed conversation about medical history, has a right and responsibility to speak with patients about gun ownership, storage, and safety.”

The proposal is part of a broad legislative agenda from the Walsh administration, including several bills focused on health and safety. Earlier this week, the administration laid out legislative priorities related to education, transportation, and housing.

In Massachusetts, state law limits local governments’ ability to make legislative changes on their own. Cities and towns can seek a home-rule petition, which needs state approval, or can file a bill directly with the Legislature for issues that have statewide implications.


Walsh administration officials said they would call for the state to seek appropriate housing — other than emergency homeless shelters — for at-risk youths leaving foster care or juvenile detention centers or who have been incarcerated. Officials said at-risk youths are more likely to improve their living conditions if they are housed in an appropriate environment other than a shelter.

One bill would streamline the application process for those applying for public benefits, such as food stamps. Another would allow people committing nonviolent drug offenses for the first or second time to seek addiction treatment instead of “a pathway to incarceration,” said Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services.

Martinez said the array of bills is meant to “tackle some real specific things that can make a dent.”

The proposed mandate that doctors ask patients about guns was part of a larger package to address firearms. Gross proposed a state law that would levy fines up to $2,000 against the owners of cars that are used to transport illegal weapons. The cars would be impounded until the fines are paid.

Another proposal would require all police agencies in the state to enter information from ballistics evidence into a national database. Many big city departments already do, but Gross said he was surprised to learn that many smaller departments do not. New Jersey and Delaware have similar statewide mandates, he said.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.