Articles and Case Studies

Gun control in Australia – what’s the role of the doctor?

12 Jun 2019

Dr Jane Deacon

by Dr Jane Deacon

gun

The recent tragedy in Christchurch is a reminder of the terrible carnage that guns can cause in the hands of the wrong people. Health professionals have a role in gun control.

A Tribunal decision

In 2015, a Queensland GP was consulted by a patient who asked him to provide a medical certificate that would allow him to overturn the suspension of his gun licence. The patient brought with him a letter from the police detailing the circumstances around the licence suspension, stating it was suspected that the patient suffered from dementia and various delusions.

The doctor signed the medical certificate without looking closely at the letter. Shortly afterwards, the police contacted the doctor and told him about the patient’s various delusions and general confusion.

In due course, the matter was considered in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal. It was ruled that the doctor should have undertaken a more comprehensive medical assessment.

The Tribunal stressed the significance of doctors’ obligations when assessing whether someone is fit to hold a firearm licence.

Following a finding of unprofessional conduct, the doctor was reprimanded and ordered to complete a four-hour course on appropriate assessment and certification in relation to firearm licences.

Gun legislation

There are over three million registered firearms and an estimated 500,000 unregistered firearms in Australia.1

Doctors can play an important role in notifying authorities if they have concerns about a patient and their access to guns. This may arise when a patient, who you know has access to a gun, has serious mental health issues, or discloses thoughts or plans of self-harm or harming others.

If the doctor has reasonable cause to suspect that the person may be a threat to themselves or others because of their access to firearms, the doctor should inform the authorities.

Although doctors have a professional and legal duty to maintain the confidentiality of health information disclosed to them by their patients, there are limits to this.

The Australian Privacy Principle (6.34) states that personal information can be disclosed when it is reasonably believed that the use or disclosure is necessary to lessen or prevent a serious threat to the life, health or safety of any individual, or to public health or safety.

There is specific firearm legislation in every Australian state that enables and, in some states compels, doctors to disclose certain situations involving firearms.

  • In the NT, SA and Tasmania, reporting is mandatory if you conclude there is a threat associated with the patient’s possession or use of a firearm, either to the patient’s own safety or the safety of other people due to the patient’s medical condition at the time.

  • In other states, reporting is not mandatory – but in all states the legislation provides protection from civil or criminal liability that may otherwise arise, including a breach of confidentiality, when disclosing information to the relevant authority.

  • In SA and Tasmania, it is mandatory for doctors to notify authorities if they treat a patient with a wound inflicted by a firearm, and to also retain any ammunition or part of ammunition recovered from the wound.

Such scenarios highlight the difficult act of balancing the therapeutic relationship against the importance of acting to prevent threats to health and safety. It can be helpful to seek advice on your specific situation.


More resources icon 

More resources

NSW Police Firearms registry: Disclosure of information by health professionals

QLD Police: Health and weapons – an information booklet

AMA: Ethical guidelines for doctors on disclosing medical records to third parties

Medical Board: Good medical practice: A code of conduct for doctors in Australia


Dr Jane Deacon
Manager, Medico-legal Advisory Services
MDA National





Regulation and Legislation, Anaesthesia, Dermatology, Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Intensive Care Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ophthalmology, Pathology, Practice Manager Or Owner, Psychiatry, Radiology, Sports Medicine, Surgery, Physician, Geriatric Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, Radiation Oncology, Paediatrics, Independent Medical Assessor - IME
 

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