A bill in the S.C. House of Representatives that would make it illegal for doctors to discuss gun safety with their patients has gun advocates – and physicians – up in arms.
Rep. Joshua Putnam, R-Anderson, said last week that he is amending House Bill 3416, which would make it illegal for a doctor to ask a patient if he or she owns a gun except in three cases: if the patient was being treated for a gunshot wound, was mentally ill or was being abused.
In the amended bill, discussing gun safety with patients would be left up to individual doctors, Putnam said.
“What physicians do right now, it allows them to continue talking to you about firearm safety tips. It keeps that intact,” Putnam said during a phone interview with the Aiken Standard. “(The amendment) keeps the intent of the bill intact where they don’t have to report information from patients about firearms.”
Putnam said his bill stems from confusion over the contents of the Affordable Care Act – commonly known as “Obamacare” – and concern that a patient’s gun ownership information could possibly be sent to the federal government.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid added an amendment to the 2010 health care law that stated physicians could not talk with patients about gun ownership.
On the heels of a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six educators were killed, President Barack Obama in January approved 23 executive orders in an effort to curb gun violence in the country. One of the orders clarified that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit physicians from asking patients about guns in their homes.
Putnam said his bill is a “safeguard” meant to ensure doctors won’t eventually be required to “keep a log” of which patients own guns.
“It puts the legislation back how Harry Reid wrote it,” he said. “We don’t want physicians to have to keep a log of ‘this patient owns this gun, this patient owns that gun.’”
Putnam said backlash from doctors from around the state has forced him to reconsider the intent of the bill. He added that lawmakers have consulted with different physicians in the medical community, including practicing doctors in the General Assembly.
“The intent of this bill is to allow doctors to have the ability to give safety information,” he said. “Once this amendment is offered to the bill, any physicians out there in the state will be pleased with the outcome.”
‘I am not working for the government’
Dr. Deborah Greenhouse, a pediatrician at Palmetto Pediatric in Columbia and president of the South Carolina chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is opposed to the bill and said physicians need to be able to discuss gun safety with patients.
“Doctors should be able to speak about firearm safety in exactly the same way that we discuss other safety issues such as car seats and bike helmets,” she said. “Firearms are a very important cause of severe injuries and deaths in children, not just in South Carolina, but throughout the United States.”
Greenhouse, who has been practicing for 20 years, said she commonly brings up the topic of firearm safety with patients and their families.
“I typically discuss firearm safety during well-child checks while we are discussing other safety issues,” she said. “I do not bring up this topic during sick visits unless the reason for the visit indicates that we need to discuss it. An example would be a teenager with severe depression. In this case, it is absolutely imperative to know if the teen has access to any firearms which he could use to harm himself.”
Greenhouse said many families thank her for discussing the issue, and she’s never had a single family express concern or become upset about the discussion.
“I am not working for the government,” she said. “I am working to keep my patients safe and healthy. I have no interest in documenting what type of firearms a family owns. I am interested only in making sure the family knows how to store the firearms safely and keep their children, and any children who may visit their home, safe.”
Greenhouse said she “cannot fathom” an amendment that would make Putnam’s bill acceptable, and feels the bill creates a slippery slope.
“The state simply has no business dictating what safety topics I can and cannot talk about,” she said. “Today, the gun-rights advocates attempt to limit my discussions about firearm safety. Tomorrow, the tobacco advocates may attempt to limit my discussions about smoking and other forms of tobacco. Who knows what will come after that?”
The devil’s in the details
Four representatives from Aiken County are among the more than 50 House lawmakers that have signed on as co-sponsors of Putnam’s bill: Reps. Don Wells, Bill Hixon, Bill Taylor and Roland Smith.
Wells said he is concerned about the federal government using physicians as a way to record gun ownership.
“If a physician has a reason for asking, I feel like all of them should have the ability to do that,” he said. “I just don’t think it should be placed into people’s medical records. I want that safety step in there so in case the federal government says ‘We want doctors to collect this information,’ here in the state of South Carolina, it would be illegal to do that.”
Hixon supports the bill and agrees that there are certain cases in which it is acceptable for a doctor to ask a patient about guns.
“The problem I have is, I go into the emergency room with appendicitis or a gall bladder attack, I don’t think it ought to be a mandatory question that a doctor asks you, ‘Do you have any guns? How many do you have? What do you use them for?’” Hixon said. “It’s none of his business. But, under certain circumstances, I think you should know whether there’s some guns in there.”
Taylor said that, with any proposed legislation, the devil is in the details.
“When legislation is proposed, no matter on what subject, the people who have a keen interest in that subject or have expertise on that subject come forth,” he said. “You learn a lot in that process, and that’s what legislatures do. They hoist the flag on a particular issue, thinking they’re on the right trail, but people who are experts or have keen interest correct them.”
The bill is currently in the S.C. House judiciary committee. Putnam said he’s not sure if the House will take action on it this year.
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