Concealed Weapons Call Falls to Doctors Who Don’t Feel Qualified

Jun 18, 2014 5:00 pm ET

June 18 (Bloomberg) -- Almost half of North Carolina doctors said they don’t feel qualified to judge a person’s mental competency to carry a concealed weapon, according to a survey, despite being asked to make that call by local sheriffs.

Among medical professionals, 84 percent said they would prefer someone with specific training assess a patient’s mental and physical ability to safely have a concealed gun, according to a questionnaire of North Carolina physicians released today by the New England Journal of Medicine. Of those surveyed, 47 percent said they couldn’t adequately assess a person’s mental fitness to carry a firearm.

“What was concerning was the fact that physicians are involved in this process, and a great majority are signing off on it, but most of them don’t feel they can adequately assess competency,” said Adam Goldstein, an author of the letter and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

The national conversation about gun regulations has focused on mental health risks, with President Barack Obama calling for better laws to prevent people with mental illnesses from obtaining weapons. More specific criteria for judging mental or physical competence would give better guidance to doctors, Goldstein said.

In 2010 there were more than 11,000 firearm-related killings in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accounting for 68 percent of all homicides. The U.S. has the highest rate of gun-related deaths of any developed country, according to the United Nations.

Competency Permits

Of 222 doctors who completed the survey, 21 percent said they had been asked to sign competency permits for concealed weapons applications. North Carolina and federal laws bar individuals declared mentally incompetent by a court or committed to a mental institution from getting a concealed carry permit.

People attempting to gain a concealed weapons permit in North Carolina typically sign a release allowing the local sheriff to obtain their medical records, according to Goldstein. While there’s no requirement for a doctor’s certification of competency, law enforcement officials can ask for one. It’s also not uncommon for a sheriff to follow up with health-care providers about an applicant’s mental or physical ability, said John Aldridge, assistant general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.

“The sheriff has an obligation to determine that the applicant doesn’t have a physical or mental impediment,” Aldridge said in a telephone interview.

Goldstein said most forms he’s seen ask if the physician has any concerns about competency. A majority of doctors, 59 percent, said they couldn’t adequately assess the physical competency of a patient and 47 percent said they couldn’t assess mental competency to carry a concealed weapon.

“This is an emotionally charged issue and people are being asked to be involved in it but they don’t have the training, and the criteria they’re using is unclear,” Goldstein said.