As a Psychologist, I Can't Take Away Your Gun

One of our December blogs described a young vet who said he would be reluctant to talk to a psychologist because he feared his gun would be taken away. To present the provider’s side of this story is one of T2’s psychologists.

When I read the blog featuring this veteran’s story, I was struck by the emotion behind his concern. I’m certain this person had a valid reason for believing he would lose his gun, but I was frustrated by the common misunderstandings about behavioral health services. Not long afterwards, I was meeting with senior suicide-prevention leaders from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. When I mentioned this issue, they said that they had each heard the exact same concern from service members in their branches.

Patient confidentiality underlies behavioral health care‒providers are legally bound to protect a patient’s privacy, with just a few exceptions involving life-threatening circumstances. Unless you state that you’re going to harm yourself or someone else, all I can do is talk to you about practicing safe and responsible gun ownership.

A behavioral health provider will commonly ask a patient if they have a gun or access to guns. If the patient says yes, the provider is simply going to ask them questions like whether they practice safe gun ownership behaviors, if they’ve had recent thoughts about harming themselves or someone else, and where they keep their gun and how they store it. So the short answer is, no, talking to a psychologist will not automatically result in you losing your gun (especially in the case of a veteran, versus an active-duty service member), but it will likely result in a conversation about your safety.

What if a patient says they’re considering killing themselves? Let’s say I’m working with a patient like this‒let’s call him “Bob”. As a psychologist working for the Federal government, I cannot force Bob to give up, turn in or hand over his personal weapon‒that's something only law enforcement can do (or his commander, if Bob is in the military). But what I can do is talk with Bob about taking steps to keep him safe, such as asking his spouse to drive him to the hospital, or to make sure Bob’s weapon is safely locked in his gun safe.

Now if Bob isn’t willing to take any of those steps, it may become necessary for me to legally break confidentiality, contact emergency medical services and have them take Bob to a hospital, immediately. But if at all possible, I would always try to make this a decision that Bob and I make together. I can also recommend that the hospital staff admit Bob to ensure he stays safe. Again, I would want this to be a decision that Bob is involved in making, but if he is seriously considering harming himself, the hospital may admit him against his will for a short period of time.

But if I have a patient telling me they are thinking about suicide, hospitalizing him or her is typically the provider’s last resort to ensure safety; many providers would prefer to keep their patients out of the hospital and have them try to solve the crisis in a safe, positive manner. Providers may often have their patient voluntarily and temporarily agree to a plan to give up access to‒or control of‒a firearm (or other available means of suicide) until the crisis passes. This could involve turning in the firearm (temporarily) to the armory, locking the weapon up in a place the patient can’t access, or storing ammunition separately from the weapon.

But what if my patient Bob is thinking of harming someone else? Again, all that I, as the provider, am legally allowed to do is break confidentiality and contact the police and tell them that Bob has a weapon, made a direct threat against a specific person, explain why I believe Bob is likely to act, and ask them to warn the potential target. Of course, this means that Bob must have told me specifically who they want to harm and what they are planning to do to them. And then, it is a law enforcement decision about what happens next.

So no, a psychologist cannot take away your gun. Psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and social workers are ethically obligated and legally required to take steps to keep you safe. We will ask you if you have experienced suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Answer honestly, realizing that that the provider is on your side, and if needed, they are going to work very hard with you to put some barriers in place so that a temporary moment of crisis doesn’t become a permanent catastrophe. If you’re not at risk for suicide, homicide or other reportable situations (like the abuse of a child or elderly person), then there is no justification for the provider to break confidentiality (which might lead to someone else taking away your gun), and frankly, the provider would be on the hook, legally, if they did so.

And, remember that the first thing a provider will do, before treatment ever starts, is talk with you about what you can expect during treatment, explain what your rights are as a patient, and ensure that all of your questions have been answered. You have the right to be an informed consumer…so go get the information you need to see if behavioral health services would benefit you.

Note: The processes described in this article can vary a bit, depending on whether the provider is working within the military health system and the service branch with which they’re affiliated, or if not, may vary within the state and location where the services are being provided.

Larry Pruitt, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and the program supervisor for the DoD Suicide Event Report (DoDSER) program at the National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Telehealth & Technology, the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health & Traumatic Brain Injury, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Read other posts by Dr. Larry Pruitt