Chapel Hill, N.C. — Recent mass shootings such as the one in Newtown, Conn., have increased interest in the gun permit process. One angle not widely reported is the role of the family doctor.
They are the ones sheriff's departments turn to for information about a person's mental or physical competence, especially when someone applies for a concealed carry permit.
As requests for those permits have increased, some physicians find themselves unprepared for such a responsibility.
The law varies from state to state. In North Carolina, those who apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon must prove mental or physical competence. To get that proof, a sheriff's department may place a call to the applicant's personal physician.
"One of the real problems which we really found is there really are no standards by which physicians can assess the safety and how that relates to physical conditions and psychological conditions," said Dr. Adam Goldstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Goldstein authored an article in the New England Journal of Medicine based on discussions with other physicians. He said doctors worry about protecting themselves and their patients. They don't want to compromise patient confidentiality or limits on what they can legally release.
Even if physicians don't want to get involved with making judgments on their patient's competency to carry a gun, Goldstein says that's no longer an option.
"Are we going to do it responsibly and ethically and according to the laws and the best standards? That's what we in medicine really try to do," he said.
Doctors are routinely involved in other judgments. They are asked to offer an opinion on whether a patient is competent to drive or whether a patient can safely participate in sports.
"Those particular examples do have established standards by which doctors can make those decisions. With the question of competency to carry a gun, there are no standards," said WRAL's Dr. Allen Mask.
"Without some standards in place, without special training in how to make these judgments, Dr. Goldstein fears that some doctors may use their personal opinions on guns rather than making that decision based on safety standards," Mask said.
"That's why he's in favor of physicians, physician organizations, public health experts and law enforcement groups getting together to iron out these questions and develop a training program."