By Elise Viebeck
Republican lawmakers are furious with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for backing questions about gun ownership during kids’ check-ups.
The practice is common among doctors, who argue it is vital to ensuring children’s safety at home. President Obama has vowed to protect doctors’ right to ask.
But as the gun-control debate simmers in Washington, conservative lawmakers said pediatricians go too far when they inquire about family firearms.
“It’s not their business,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s like asking, ‘Do people pray in your home? Do they voice opinions contrary to the [Obama] administration?'”
Gun-control efforts began in earnest after a gunman shot 26 people dead in a Connecticut elementary school before Christmas.
The massacre reignited a longstanding debate about guns as a public health issue and whether the Centers for Disease Control should study gun violence.
It also put a spotlight on doctors and their role in encouraging gun safety.
“About 55 children die a week as a result of gun violence,” AAP President Thomas McInerny told The Hill. “For us, that’s a big problem.”
McInerny’s group, which represents 60,000 U.S. pediatricians, has recommended asking patients about guns for decades in its clinical guidelines.
The practice has a long history in U.S. medicine, McInerny said.
“If there’s a gun in the house, a family member is three times more likely to die from a gunshot wound [than] an intruder,” he added. “We advise parents about car safety seats, about bicycle helmets, and about guns. It’s just part of our prevention frame of mind.”
But on Capitol Hill this week, GOP lawmakers reacted to the idea as a major violation of gun-owners’ privacy.
“Are they going to start asking if [patients] are Republicans or Democrats?” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), another member of the Judiciary Committee. “Asking questions that are none of the pediatricians’ business is out of bounds.”
King, criticizing Obama’s healthcare law, suggested that doctors’ practice of asking about guns could ultimately help the government surveil citizens.
“What they’re doing is compiling a record that, one day, the Obama administration or a succeeding administration could tap into,” King said. “Who is getting those records? They will be in ObamaCare’s database file. That’s part of that.”
He added that it would be easy for Congress to pass a law enabling federal officials to use those records to “identify where guns are.”
A slew of other GOP lawmakers expressed similar outrage. They argued, like the National Rifle Association (NRA), that gun safety is not doctors’ responsibility.
“Doctors have no business inquiring of patients whether they are choosing to exercise their constitutional rights,” NRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Otto said in a statement Friday. “When a child is brought to a doctor, it is to seek their expertise in pediatrics, not firearms ownership.”
The NRA is currently involved in a legal battle supporting a Florida law that would limit doctors’ ability to discuss guns with patients.
A federal judge blocked the statute in 2011. Other states, including Alabama and North Carolina, have tried to pass similar bills to no avail.
“It’s an emotional issue, but that is only in politics,” said McInerny. “It’s not charged in the exam room. It’s not charged day-to-day with kids and parents.”
In the broader gun-control debate, the AAP has backed a variety of new measures, including an assault weapons ban.
The group has also called on the Obama administration to clarify a little-noticed section of the Affordable Care Act that restricts data collection on guns.
In January, Obama promised guidance that affirms doctors’ right to ask freely about gun safety.
“Doctors and other healthcare providers also need to be able to ask about firearms in their patients’ homes,” especially if children are involved, the White House said.
Contrary to many of their colleagues, some GOP lawmakers who practice medicine sympathized with that view this week.
“Our pediatricians do a fabulous job,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), an OBGYN with an “A” rating from the NRA. “In the spirit of knowing that maybe there were guns in the home, to advise a parent or a legal guardian about gun safety, I think I understand.”
“If I’m a pediatrician, I want to make sure the kids I take care of are safe,” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), a physician. “So having a discussion about all types of things … I don’t have a problem with it.”