Should Doctors Ask Older People If They Have Guns at Home?




Q. I took my father for his routine physical appointment last week. The doctor asked him all kinds of questions, but didn’t inquire about whether he owns a gun. He actually owns three guns, and I’m concerned about it because he is losing his memory. In my opinion, physicians should inquire about guns in the homes of geriatric patients who may be at a higher risk for a gun-related fatality. I have read about suicide and homicide among seniors because of dementia, delusions, memory problems, and depression. Are there any laws in progress to mandate this? How can I get dad to give up his guns?

A. Many seniors, similar to your father, have firearms available to them in their homes. Often, even those with memory impairment have access to firearms, most of which are unlocked and with readily available ammunition.

As you are aware, the presence of firearms in the home may pose lethal dangers. Seniors with guns are more likely than younger people to suffer self-inflicted (either accidental or intentional) gunshot wounds. In fact, nearly 23,000 people in the U.S. were killed in firearm suicides in 2016, accounting for 59 percent of all gun deaths that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To safeguard seniors as well as the rest of the population, a public health approach to preventing gun violence, with physician engagement as a central element, is essential.

Are Physicians Required to Ask About Guns?

The issue of physicians asking patients or family members about the presence of firearms in the home has generated some heated discussion.

In 2012, the state of Florida passed legislation with a measure called the Firearms Owners Privacy Act (also known as “Docs vs. Glocks” — Glock is a well-known gun manufacturer) to restrict doctors from asking patients about their guns.

“Docs vs. Glocks” sought to prevent physicians from entering information about gun ownership into medical records if the physicians knew the information was not “relevant” to patients’ medical care or safety or to the safety of other people. The law also said that doctors should refrain from asking about gun ownership by patients or family members unless the doctors believed in “good faith” that the information was relevant to medical care or safety. The law sought to prevent doctors from discriminating against patients or “harassing” them because of owning firearms.

Five years later, a federal appeals court ruled that the law violates medical professionals’ constitutional right to free speech. The ruling did determine that some parts of the law could remain on the books, such as provisions allowing patients to decline to answer questions about guns and prohibiting health insurance companies from denying coverage or increasing premiums for people who lawfully own guns.

“There was no evidence whatsoever before the Florida Legislature that any doctors or medical professionals have taken away patients’ firearms or otherwise infringed on patients’ Second Amendment rights,” Judge Adalberto Jordan wrote, noting that doctors and medical professionals don’t have any legal authority to take away anyone’s guns anyway. Attorney Doug Hallward-Driemeier, who also worked on the suit, said the decision was “critical to the health and safety of Florida families.”

Several states have mulled statutes similar to Florida’s, but none of the proposed bills have passed.

Why Doctors Don’t Ask

Doctors, especially primary care physicians, are in a unique position to know some of the most private details of our lives, including many indicators that could suggest a higher risk of being a victim or perpetrator of gun violence.

Patients are used to doctors asking about habits that may affect our health, from smoking to having sex. But, when it comes to guns, there’s a politically charged nature to it and people get offended. That means it’s sometimes easier not to talk about the issue at all, and doctors often avoid it.

What to Do if Your Senior Loved One Has a Gun

If you have a loved one with a gun, and his or her doctor hasn’t inquired about it and offered advise, here are some actions you can take:

1. Consider if the gun owner competent to keep a weapon. Why did he have it in the first place? To go hunting or protect himself from intruders? Are those same reasons valid today?

a. If the answers to those questions suggest the gun should no longer be in your the home, try to get the owner’s permission to remove the gun. Having the support of others, such siblings or a geriatric care manager or attorney, may be more effective than trying to convince him by yourself.

b. If you can’t make headway, or your parent has cognitive issues, or you think the situation is dangerous, you’ll want to get it out of the house regardless. Call your local police department and ask them what to do. Should you bring it to the station? They may be willing to come to your house and pick up the gun.

2. You can’t just remove a gun from someone else’s house and bring it to yours. That may be considered larceny. Ask the police for help.

3. A time to be particularly vigilant is when an elder is overcome by grief, such as after the death of a spouse.

For more details on this subject, please see our newsletter articles on the subject including Should Dad Give Up His Guns? and A Parent has Alzheimer’s and a Gun. What Do You Do?.

Medicaid Planning for Dementia

You mentioned that your father has memory loss. As you can see, conversations about guns can be challenging, but are very important. Another important conversation should be planning for long-term care. Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. At the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. Please call us whenever you are ready to make an appointment for a consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.