Lisa Maurer, MD, FACEP
At the risk of addressing a sensitive topic perhaps not ideally discussed via email newsletter, WACEP needs feedback from our members on how, or if, we should be involved in possible future Wisconsin firearm regulations.
Inspired by Dr. Stephen Hargarten’s presentation at WACEP Spring Symposium 2017, I believe there is room for growth in how physicians discuss firearm safety from a health perspective while steering clear of political biases. Who better to give input than my colleagues working in Wisconsin’s EDs every day?
This will be a timely legislative topic for Wisconsin in the near future, judging by the fact that the Wisconsin Legislative Council released an Information Memorandum on Firearm Regulation this last session. If we should be involved in possible future regulations, it is useful to learn about the regulation currently in place in Wisconsin. The memorandum summarizes that Wisconsin’s constitution gives people have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation, or any other lawful purpose. Current regulations (including pertinent federal laws):
- Prohibit possession of a firearm by individuals who are: convicted of a felony or domestic violence crime, involuntarily committed under chapter 51 statute, adjudicated incompetent, addicted to any controlled substance, or under the age of 18;
- Permit background checks in specific scenarios such as purchasing a firearm from a federal firearm licensed dealer or to apply for a license to carry a concealed weapon;
- Impose penalties for transferring firearms to an ineligible person or providing false information;
- Provide geographic restrictions on carrying a firearm. For example, a person may not carry a firearm onto a public or private property if the owner has notified the person not to enter while carrying a firearm, into a school zone, or in a vehicle for the case of loaded long guns; and
- Regulate certain devices such as fully automatic firearms, armor-piercing ammunition, and special processes for obtaining silencers.
Our country has seen growing momentum for a particular type of firearm regulation known as “red flag laws,” where courts and police may temporarily seize an individual's firearms if they are thought to be a threat to self or others. This type of regulation now exists in six states and is being considered in 20 more, including Wisconsin. The specifics of the “red flag” laws vary from state to state. Generally, police may only seize firearms owned by the individual in question, even if there may be other firearms in the home owned by others. The individual typically has an annual opportunity to petition the court for return of their firearm, although that time interval may be shorter in some states. Also, the definition of “thought to be a threat” can be described as “substantially likely to harm” or the more difficult to prove, “imminent danger.” Likewise, the type of individuals permitted to make this judgement of threat varies among states. Some states specify that immediate family members may be the ones to notify police, whereas other states include household members or other close contacts.
To my knowledge, no state includes physicians in the list of specific contacts that may alert law enforcement for the purpose of firearm possession regarding an individual thought to pose a threat to themselves or others. Should Wisconsin include physicians as they consider “red flag” laws? This is ironically reminiscent of our statutes regarding involuntary holds for psychiatric disease that may render an individual an imminent threat to themselves or others. Seeing as our state’s process of placing and removing Emergency Detention holds is so unique, should we be the pioneers of implementing a similar system for physicians alerting officers when it may be indicated to remove someone’s firearm? On the other hand, many emergency physicians in Wisconsin suggest that the Emergency Detention process in our state should be completely revised. Perhaps we should avoid reinforcing that system by mirroring it in another statute.
In summary, WACEP is looking for your opinion: if Wisconsin decides to proceed with a “red flag” firearm regulation, should physicians be among the individuals who are allowed to make the determination of threat to self or others? Please do send us your thoughts!