Doctors enlisted to help stem gun violence

After asking about drug and alcohol use at your next checkup the doctor may ask similar questions about gun safety, part of an effort to further curb gun violence by treating it as a public health issue and involving medical professionals in gun safety discussions.

Attorney General Maura Healey on Monday announced that her office and the Massachusetts Medical Society joined forces to make informational brochures and online training opportunities available to physicians who want to engage patients in discussions of gun safety.

“Our health care providers are on the front lines, they have a critical role in preventing gun-related injuries and death. But last year we discovered screening and counseling about guns remains relatively uncommon,” Healey said at a press conference at Boston Medical Center.

Healey added, “Many doctors don’t feel like they have the information they need to discuss gun safety with patients. Some are unsure if it is even legal to ask their patients about guns. Others don’t know what practical advice they can give. Still others don’t know what reporting obligations exist or might be triggered when it comes to gun-related questions.”

The guidance will take the form of pamphlets for patients and providers, and a voluntary continuing education course offered to medical professionals for credit through the medical society.

Doctors will be encouraged to talk to their patients about gun safety “just as they would with any other potentially dangerous household risk such as chemicals in cleaning supplies, backyard pools, alcohol and cigarettes, prescription medication, or fire hazards,” according to the AG’s office.

Physicians who elect to take the continuing education course related to gun safety conversations will learn about gun license laws, reporting obligations, guidance on patient privacy, and ways to approach what could be a sensitive subject with patients.

“Gun violence is a major public health threat and physicians can play a key role in curbing the violence by educating patients about the risks of gun ownership and encouraging our colleagues to talk to their patients,” MMS President Dr. James Gessner said.

Gessner said a doctor who adds questions about gun safety to their patient exam routine assumes no liability, and suggested that such discussions in a doctor’s exam room will become so commonplace that “the public will come to expect this.”

Rep. Byron Rushing did not expect it when, during a checkup a few years ago, his doctor asked him if he had a gun at home. The Boston lawmaker said it didn’t fully hit him until he got home that no doctor had ever asked him about guns. Rushing said he called the doctor on the phone to learn more.

“It turned out he was doing it. It wasn’t like there was a policy for all doctors to do it. He was doing it,” Rushing said. “One of the things that I think these policies that are proposed here will do is to make sure that all doctors are asking these questions.”

The program spawned by Healey and the MMS earned the endorsement Monday of law enforcement, with both the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs Association lending their support.

“While we know that the majority of gun owners are extremely responsible and are committed to a strong sense of safety as it pertains to their personal firearms, the fact remains that incidents involving firearm discharges continue to occur,” Chief Brian Kyes, president of the MMCCA, said. “We firmly believe that the key to decreasing these oftentimes tragic accidents is a comprehensive prevention program focused on continued awareness and providing detailed information as it pertains to firearm safety.”

Massachusetts had the lowest gun death rate of any state in the country in 2015, the Violence Policy Center reported last month, citing federal gun death data. The Massachusetts death rate was 3.13 per 100,000 residents, the center said, and its gun ownership rate was 14.3 percent.

Healey and others pointed to the state’s low gun death rate as evidence that the Massachusetts gun-safety law passed in 2014 has been effective.

“There are so many different factors that may go into that. Can I say that that law in and of itself is the reason? Probably not. But what I can say is the fact that we here in Massachusetts take gun violence very seriously,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a proponent of the 2014 law, said. “And I think if you couple all of that into one large package, that I think is the major reason why ... we have those types of statistics that we have.”

That law required the development of an online portal to log information about private gun sales, authorized licensed gun dealers to access criminal offender record information, created new firearms crimes, allowed police chiefs a stronger role in granting long-gun licenses and provided for the state to submit more information to the National Instant Check System, among other measures.

A spending bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed in 2015 allocated $150,000 for an academic study examining the implementation of the 2014 gun law, including evaluations of the new licensing procedures and assessments of firearm tracing. That study, led by Northeastern University’s Jack McDevitt, is nearing completion, DeLeo said Monday.

“He’ll be coming in to see me, I think within a couple of weeks,” the speaker said. “I think the review is still ongoing. I don’t think there’s been any finalization in terms of the report but I can tell you that he is taking a look in terms of how effective we’ve been here in Massachusetts.”