Guns, mental health and privacy issues

Some of President Obama's gun safety orders may find resistance in Florida


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – At the federal level, President Barack Obama wants a national dialogue how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Among the items he implemented by executive order on Wednesday is increasing insurance and Medicaid benefits for mental health treatment, removing barriers to collecting information on people states have deemed unfit to own guns, and making sure that health care law does not prevent doctors from asking patients about guns in their homes.

"We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence, even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator," Obama said.

Dr. Lauren Williams, a psychiatry specialist Memorial Hospital is hopeful the changes will make health care more accessible to everyone who needs it.

"There's a barrier, especially for those who are uninsured, and so they are not getting what I believe, is the entrance into the system," Williams said.

Williams hopes part of the national focus on the subject will de-stigmitize mental health care.

"I think a lot of responsibility is placed on the individual -- blame perhaps -- so it's not looked at like other medical conditions," Williams said.

Obama's initiative to have states share mental health information with the federal government and allow doctors to discuss gun safety with their patients may be problematic in Florida.

A law passed in 2011 by the Florida Legislature that would ban any such doctor-patient conversation is up for a second look in the upcoming session. Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, has a the measure (SB 314) to repeal the "Firearm Owners' Privacy Act," which isn't currently being enforced because a federal judge threw it out in July. The state is appealing that ruling.

"I think that there's a big breach of personal privacy by using any medical records at all for the purpose of assembling a list of people who might have guns, and consequently, I would consider that to be a very important constitutional question," said Rod Sullivan, professor at Florida Coastal School of Law.

Some doctors believe having that conversation with patients about guns could be helpful in certain circumstances.

"Of course we have to respect confidentiality, but if there is a risk, there should be a triage, so to speak, of how this information is handled, so that we can protect whoever needs to be protected," said Dr. Williams.

Patients are mixed on the subject of talking to their doctor about guns.

Erin Howard said she would not be opposed to talking to her kids' pediatrician about guns in the home, saying, "They're responsible for the health of your child when you take them there."

But Jason Huffstutler would not be open to such a conversation with his doctor.

"It's just personal business, I don't think that's any business of any doctors," Huffstuttler said.

While Obama wants such a conversation to be possible, there is no rule that would require patients to disclose information about gun ownership.