Aman comes to Northwell Health’s hospital on Staten Island with a sprained ankle. Any allergies? the doctor asks. How many alcoholic drinks do you have each week? Do you have access to firearms inside or outside the home?

When the patient answers yes to that last question, someone from his care team explains that locking up the firearm can make his home safer. She offers him a gun lock and a pamphlet with information on secure storage and firearm-safety classes. And all of this happens during the visit about his ankle.

Northwell Health is part of a growing movement of health-care providers that want to talk with patients about guns like they would diet, exercise, or sex—treating firearm injury as a public-health issue.


In the past few years, the White House has declared firearm injury an epidemic, and the CDC and National Institutes of Health have begun offering grants for prevention research. Meanwhile, dozens of medical societies agree that gun injury is a public-health crisis and that health-care providers have to help stop it.

Asking patients about access to firearms and counseling them toward responsible storage could be one part of that. “It’s the same way that we encourage people to wear seat belts and not drive while intoxicated, to exercise,” Emmy Betz, an emergency-medicine physician and the director of the University of Colorado’s Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative, told me.

An unsecured gun could be accessible to a child, someone with dementia, or a person with violent intent—and may increase the chance of suicide or accidental injury in the home. Securely storing a gun is fundamental to the National Rifle Association’s safety rules, but as of 2016, only about half of firearm owners reported doing so for all of their guns.

Some evidence shows that when health-care workers counsel patients and give them a locking device, it leads to safer storage habits. Doctors are now trying to figure out the best way to broach the conversation. Physicians talk about sex, drugs, and even (if your earbuds are too loud) rock and roll. But to many firearm owners, guns are different.

Not so long ago, powerful physicians argued that if guns were causing so much harm, people should just quit them. In the 1990s, the director of the CDC’s injury center said that a public-health approach to firearm injury would mean rebranding guns as a dangerous vice, like cigarettes.

“It used to be that smoking was a glamor symbol—cool, sexy, macho,” he told The New York Times in 1994. “Now it is dirty, deadly—and banned.”

In the 2010s, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice was to “NEVER” have a gun in the home, because the presence of one increased a child’s risk of suicide or injury so greatly. (“Do not purchase a gun,” the group warned bluntly.) And when asked in 2016 whom they would go to for safe-storage advice, firearm owners ranked physicians second to last, above only celebrities.


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