Mass. AG Maura Healey: Gun Violence is a Public Health Crisis
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey will speak to leaders in public health and medicine at MMS’s Public Health Leadership Forum on Firearm Violence on April 5. MMS Public Health Manager Robyn Alie spoke with Attorney General Healey recently about firearm violence and how it affects physicians and the public.
MMS: You have called the epidemic of gun violence a public health problem. Why?
AG HEALEY: I think what’s really important is we talk about this as a public health crisis and as a moral issue for our country. In far too many places, across this country, people are fearful of sitting outside on their porch, fearful of letting their kids walk to school. We have too many victims of domestic violence, subject to incredible mental anguish given that their abusers have guns and are able to wield all sorts of power.
Guns have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of families and of the community at large. The fact of the matter is that having a gun in your home does not make it a safer place to be, and actually makes it more dangerous. It’s not that people aren’t entitled to exercise their second amendment rights and to keep a gun at their house, but the risk of suicide is five times as high. Death of a household member is three times more likely. With a gun in the home, a woman’s risk of intimate partner homicide is seven times as great.
MMS: Last year, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital was fatally shot by a patient’s family member. What are your thoughts about how to protect health professionals?
AG HEALEY: It was so tragic. He was shot to death in the hospital doing his job. In the wake of that event, we reached out to the hospitals to find out how we can be helpful, and we learned that hospitals need to find the right balance, between providing secure spaces for their workers and patients, and at the same time providing a place that’s welcoming and inviting for family members and for visitors, and it’s tough. It’s a delicate balance, and one that requires the use of best protocols and policies to ensure that no one’s in harm’s way.
But I still see instances where the availability of guns has made it far too easy for someone who’s set on doing harm to obtain guns and be able to go out and cause harm.
MMS: We have seen that mental health is often implicated in gun violence events, but research has shown that the proportion of gun violence perpetrated by people with mental illness is actually quite small, and those with mental illness are actually more likely to be victims. What are your thoughts about policies related to mental health and gun violence?
AG HEALEY: I would never want our gun violence blamed on mental health problems. We shouldn’t use this issue to create greater stigma around mental health and behavioral health. But, I think it is an opportunity to recognize that those services need to be more robust. That’s why we need true mental health parity when it comes to coverage and access. We need to focus on the reality that 62% of gun deaths are suicides. Also, we do need to provide care and treatment to those folks. How are we looking to intersect with them so that we have an opportunity to intercede? Again, here’s where I think health care and medical professionals have that opportunity. And why their involvement and engagement are so important. Because we should be doing everything we can to make sure that people who are a danger to themselves or a danger to others, who might harm themselves are not able to access guns in a way that’s going to enable them to harm themselves or someone else.
MMS: What about issues of patient privacy?
AG HEALEY: It’s an issue where I know there has been some differences across the states. There’s a law in Florida that actually prohibits physicians from asking their patients about gun ownership. That law is now being challenged in the courts. And I think it should be challenged for all the reasons we just talked about. Gun violence is a public health issue and I don’t think that doctors should be restricted from asking their patients about an issue that could affect their health. The NRA has long pushed for these kinds of laws in part because they know how influential physicians can be. I think that’s where we need to have doctors more involved in addressing this question. I don’t think doctors should be in any way prohibited from asking patients about an issue that in any way could affect their health. This is one. Obviously there are appropriate ethics that apply when it comes to physicians becoming aware that someone may do immediate harm to themselves or others, and they should act appropriately there, according to their ethical obligations.