Frequently Asked Questions

Explore providers' frequently asked questions on firearm violence prevention and firearms counseling below. Click on the question to view its answer.

If your question isn't answered here, don't hesitate to reach out to the What You Can Do team by sending an email to hs-WYCD@ucdavis.edu.

Yes! You can ask. There are no state or federal statutes prohibiting health care providers from asking about firearms access when the information is relevant to the patient’s or others’ health. For more information, see Yes, You Can: Physicians, Patients, and Firearms.

As a health care provider, you are in a unique position to understand your patients’ risk for firearm injury and death. As Dr. Wintemute explains in his commentary, you can approach firearm counseling as “a focused intervention, because violence is not distributed at random."1

He continues:

People who commit firearm violence—whether against others or themselves—and people who sustain it often have well-recognized risk factors. As a result, firearm violence can to some extent be predicted. What's more, these factors often bring high-risk individuals into contact with physicians.

You can screen for access to firearms, the same way that you may selectively screen patients for access to other hazards.

For more on assessing risk and counseling patients, view, download, or print the What You Can Do provider handout.

You can start by explaining that having firearms in the home is a risk for everyone in the home, and they can cause devastating outcomes when they get into the wrong hands.2

You can explain that members of households with firearms are at increased risk of violent death compared to those living in households without firearms. Furthermore, firearms in houses with at-risk members, such as substance abusers, are less likely to practice safe storage.3,4

38,658 people died from firearms in 2016. For comparison, 40,528 people died in motor vehicle crashes.5 Firearm safety is important both for the health of your patients and for public health.

After discussing the health risks of firearms and safety strategies with patients, you can give them the What You Can Do patient handout, developed to help patients further understand the risks of having firearms and how to minimize that risk.

Assess your patient’s unique risk factors for firearm violence, and use that assessment to inform your firearm counseling. Explain why you’re asking about firearms and highlight the risk that comes with having firearms in the home.

We recommend an approach to counseling that:6

  • Relates clearly to the patient’s health and wellbeing
  • Is unique to the patient and context-specific
  • Is respectful
  • Opens a conversation
  • Recognizes that changing circumstances in the home can change risk of firearm injury and death
  • Acknowledges local customs related to firearms and firearm ownership
  • Happens within an established patient-physician relationship, when possible
  • Is educational, rather than strictly for information gathering
  • Includes appropriate follow-up

See more about preparing to counsel patients.

For a guide on assessing risk and counseling patients, view, download, or print the What You Can Do provider handout.

After you’ve assessed the patient’s risk factors, you might start the conversation by saying: “Now I want to ask you a couple of questions about firearms. Are there any firearms in or around your home?”

If the patient answers with a yes, you should probe: “Do any of these firearms belong to you?” and “Who has access to them?”

More detail is often helpful. If there are firearms in the home, find out more by asking, “Are all the guns and ammunition locked up in some way?” and “Are all of the firearms stored so they can’t be accessed by unauthorized users?”6

If it’s helpful, you can incorporate the questions on firearm ownership and access into any other screening questions you ask during the patient’s visit.

Be prepared to offer guidance and materials on safe firearm storage.  You can refer to the WYCD Resources page for handouts and other information you can give the patient.

Be prepared to take further action when your firearm counseling leads you to believe someone is at imminent risk of perpetrating or sustaining firearm violence.

For a guide on assessing risk and counseling patients, view, download, or print the What You Can Do provider handout.

If your at-risk patient has access to firearms and is not safely storing or handling them, discuss measures the patient can take to improve her firearm safety habits. If it’s helpful, note the patient’s responses to firearm questions. Plan to follow up about firearms access and your recommendations at the next visit to find out whether the patient was or was not able to follow your firearm safety recommendations, and why or why not. Remember that the circumstances regarding firearms might change from one visit to the next.

If a patient is worried about someone else’s access to guns and unsure of how to address it, have a conversation with the patient about the risk of firearms in the home, answer the patient’s questions, and provide him or her with the information he or she might need to present to the at-risk person. Recommend that the patient take a non-confrontational, non-judgmental approach to discussing firearm access.

If your assessment of the patient’s situation leads you to believe that someone is at extreme risk of gun violence, it is an emergency, and you should get in touch with local law enforcement or mental health services.

Parents can ask about unlocked guns along with any of the other safety questions they ask before their children go to another home to play. They can say, “Is there an unlocked gun in your house?,” making clear that this is a safety question and avoiding passing judgment. If the answer is yes, the parent should talk about his or her concerns and see if the gun owner is willing to store the guns safely. Parents should not let their children play where there are guns that are not safety stored.

Some states have provisions for temporary removal of firearms from people experiencing times of crisis, called Extreme Risk Protection Orders or Gun Violence Restraining Orders. These laws allow a law enforcement officer, an immediate family member, or a household member to petition for a court order to recover guns from an individual in crisis and to prevent temporarily them from purchasing firearms, citing specific evidence of extreme risk to self or others. If the order is issued, law enforcement will collect the guns and temporarily hold them.

When no extension is issued and the order expires, the person can ask the court to return the firearms, often pending clearance of a background check. Find out if such a law exists in your state.

Providers may not be able to petition directly for such an order, but they can consider contacting local law enforcement or a family member.

Follow up on firearm access at the next visit with the patient and ask the questions again. The risk of firearms in the home changes as circumstances change, for example if a child comes into the home or if someone in the home is having suicidal thoughts. Continuous evaluation of whether or not everyone in the home is safe with firearms is important for assessing risk and addressing risk when necessary.

No law prohibits you from including in the medical record the information patients give you about access to firearms. Be prepared to answer patients’ questions about how you will use the information they give you on their firearms access.

Guns can usually be sold to licensed gun dealers, and in some places, unwanted guns can be turned in to local law enforcement or given up in a gun buy-back program. The patient should check with local law enforcement to learn about the options in your area.

The RAND Corporation has recently compiled a State Firearm Law Database, a downloadable file detailing firearm laws by state. Users can filter the database by state and by type of law and can view each law's text.

Federal and state firearms laws are also available online at the Giffords Law Center.

Many laws vary by state. Some states, for example, have provisions for temporary removal of firearms from people experiencing times of crisis, called Emergency Risk Protection Orders or Gun Violence Restraining Orders.

We encourage you to send your patients home with the What You Can Do patient handout, available in English or in Spanish. It discusses firearm violence risk, steps patients can take to reduce that risk, facts about firearm violence, and answers a list of firearm violence FAQs for patients.

You can print the handouts single- or double-sided and staple them in the upper left corner.

If a patient gives up firearms temporarily because he or someone else in his home is at extreme risk of firearm violence, his ability to own a firearm in the future should not be affected as long as no prohibiting event is involved. In some states, a background check may be required to verify that the person who gave up his guns is not a prohibited person before his guns are returned to him.

The WYCD Resources page lists peer-reviewed articles, physician and patient resources on firearms, provider materials on firearm counseling, and more.

If something is missing, either from the WYCD website or from the patient or provider handouts, please let us know by sending an email to hs-WYCD@ucdavis.edu.

If you’re interested in participating in general firearms safety training, get in touch with your local gun range to see what training is offered and to sign up.

Health care providers can make the commitment online at Annals of Internal Medicine. You can also read the commentary on which the commitment is based—What You Can Do to Stop Firearm Violence—at the Annals website.

If you can’t find the information you’re looking for regarding firearm violence risk, counseling, safe storage, or another topic, or if you have a question or comment about the What You Can Do initiative, please get in touch with the our team.

Send us an email at hs-WYCD@ucdavis.edu to let us know what you need from us.


  1. Wintemute GJ. What you can do to stop firearm violence. Ann Intern Med 2017;167:886-87.
  2. Talking to patients about gun safety: Massachusetts Medical Society & Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General; 2017.
  3. Nelson DE, Grant-Worley JA, Powell K, Mercy J, Holtzman D. Population estimates of household firearm storage practices and firearm carrying in Oregon. JAMA 1996;275:1744-8.
  4. Nordstrom DL, Zwerling C, Stromquist AM, Burmeister LF, Merchant JA. Rural population survey of behavioral and demographic risk factors for loaded firearms. Inj Prev 2001;7:112-6.
  5. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2016.
  6. Wintemute GJ, Betz ME, Ranney ML. Yes, you can: physicians, patients, and firearms. Ann Intern Med 2016;165:205-13.