Dr Jones has been treating Peter who has a history of anxiety and depression. Peter recently had his firearms licence suspended and approaches Dr Jones for a medical report. At his last consultation, Peter revealed to Dr Jones that he had recently broken up with his wife, that they were going through an acrimonious divorce and custody battle and that his wife had threatened to take out a restraining order against him. Dr Jones had no idea that Peter held a firearms licence and is unsure about what he should disclose and whether he has any reporting obligations.
The health practitioner’s role
There are legal and ethical requirements on health professionals to disclose health information concerning a patient’s fitness to possess a firearm. Statutory protections are afforded to prevent any civil or criminal liability in relation to such disclosure.
In all Australian jurisdictions, individuals applying for or renewing a firearms licence must disclose their medical history and an application or renewal of a firearms licence may be denied, suspended or cancelled if there is evidence of mental or physical conditions rendering the person unsuitable to possess, own or use a firearm.
Apart from where there is a situation of risk involved, the onus is on the individual applying for the firearm licence (rather than the treating health practitioner) to disclose relevant physical or mental health conditions.
As part of the application and/or renewal process the applicant/licence holder may be asked to obtain a medical report from their treating practitioner outlining their suitability to hold a firearm licence, as described in the scenario above. This requires careful consideration on the practitioner’s part to assess the medical history obtained from the patient and provide information as to any physical and/or mental health condition which could impact upon a patient’s fitness to hold a firearm. The type of information sought by the firearms registrar might include the length of the therapeutic relationship and frequency of visits, nature of any illness/condition/disability, long term prognosis, ability to safely operate a firearm, details of medication and any issues with self-medication.
In all States and Territories (except South Australia and the Northern Territory where there are mandatory reporting requirements, refer table below) a health professional should notify the state or territory Commissioner of Police if a patient has made threats to harm themselves or others and who the practitioner believes to be a risk to themselves or the public if they possess a firearm.
A ‘health professional’ is commonly defined to include a medical practitioner, nurse, psychologist, professional counsellor or social worker.
As outlined in the table, there is legislative protection in all jurisdictions from any criminal and civil liability that may arise when a health professional breaches a patient’s privacy by disclosing information in good faith to the police.
Is my patient fit to possess a firearm?
In determining if a patient is unsuitable to possess a firearm and whether a notification should be made, health professionals should consider a range of issues including any history of attempted suicide, aggression and/or violence, and the person’s history of weapon ownership and reasons for obtaining a weapon. Any final decision on whether to notify police should be guided by professional judgement and ethics. If there is an imminent risk to the safety of any person, the health professional should contact the emergency police number (000).
In the scenario described above, Dr Jones will need to explain to Peter that in providing the report he has an obligation to disclose Peter’s mental health history and circumstances giving rise to it, views on prognosis and current medication as it may impact on his fitness to hold a firearm. As the firearms registrar has already suspended Peter’s firearms licence, Dr Jones does not need to make a notification to the police unless he believes there is an imminent risk to the safety of another.
If you are unsure about your disclosure obligations, please contact our Claims and Legal Services department for further advice.