State looks at gun violence as public health threat


After asking about drug and alcohol use at your next checkup, don’t be surprised if your doctor asks questions about gun safety. According to the State House News Service, the suggested protocol is part of a statewide effort to curb gun violence by treating it as a public health issue, and involving medical professionals in gun-safety discussions.

Attorney General Maura Healey announced on Monday that her office and the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) joined forces to make informational brochures and online training opportunities available to physicians who want to engage patients in discussions on 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 remain relatively uncommon,” Healey said at a press conference at Boston Medical Center.

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

The 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.

According to the Massachusetts Firearm Bureau, there were 1,635 active class A and class B licenses to carry (LTC) firearms on Martha’s Vineyard, and 288 active firearms identification (FID) cards, as of Jan. 3, 2017. These numbers give an idea of how many firearms are owned on-Island, but because the information can change at any time — based on the issuance of new licenses, the expiration of old licenses, suspensions, and revocations — they don’t provide an entirely accurate picture.

According to the press release, physicians who decide to take the continuing-education course for 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,” Dr. James Gessner, president of MMS, said.

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 as they would about any other potential household risk such as chemicals in cleaning supplies, backyard pools, alcohol and cigarettes, prescription medication, or fire hazards.

Dr. Gessner said a doctor who adds questions about gun safety to a 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.”

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 (MMCCA) supporting the concept.

“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.”