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Gun Laws in Health Systems Vary by State

June 29, 2015

A federal law bars guns from schools, but there is no such law about firearms in hospitals.

For the staff at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, the fuzzy security photo of a young man entering the Charleston church where he is alleged to have shot nine people on June 17 had to be disturbingly familiar. A hospital camera recorded similar scenes in January, when a man walked into the main entrance of the hospital, made his way to a cardiology clinic and fatally shot his late mother's doctor.

The death of Michael Davidson, MD, a well-liked, well-respected cardiac surgeon shook the hospital and its entire staff. The man was reportedly unhappy with his mother's care. Jo Shapiro, MD, is a physician and director of the hospital's Center for Professionalism and Peer Support.

"I don't know a single person who ever thought we would have to pay with our lives for someone else's perception of our care," she says. "That reality… shattered a sense of security that I think I've always had."

But, hospital shootings are not uncommon. In 2010 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a man shot his mother, her doctor, and then himself. Only the doctor survived.

Jo Shapiro, MD

Hospital staff train to handle all kinds of mass casualties and trauma. But when someone enters the hospital with a gun, providers, employees and patients turn into potential victims. Or not. Last summer, a patient shot a psychiatrist and a caseworker at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Philadelphia. The doctors survived, pulled his own handgun and fatally shot the patient.

So far this year, news of hospital gunplay has been steady. A nurse was wounded in January at a Los Angeles hospital. A doctor was fatally shot by a man who then shot himself at a Texas Veterans Affairs hospital. In April, a man was charged with fatally shooting a woman in the parking lot of a Houston hospital. An elderly couple died in another apparent murder-suicide at a Texas hospital earlier in June. Also in June, a woman reportedly shot herself in the bathroom of a Seattle hospital.

While a federal law bars guns from schools, state laws regarding guns in hospitals vary. In some states, including Texas, hospitals are designated gun-free zones.

But some lawmakers, like Texas State Representative Drew Springer, don't think banning guns will stop criminals from shooting in health care settings. He introduced a bill in the past legislative session that would have allowed staff and family to bring firearms into hospitals for self-defense. The bill expired with the session, but he plans to keep pushing the issue.

"The gun-free zones do not stop the crazies who are going to commit these actions," Springer says, noting that they only prevent people at the hospitals from defending themselves. He says his district includes some rural hospitals that have limited security staff. Also, several nurses have told him that want to take their guns to work for protection.

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