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Psychiatrist Congressman Jim McDermott faces ethical dilemma in gun debate

Congressman and psychiatrist Jim McDermott says some of President Obama's gun proposals pose an ethical dilemma for mental health workers. (AP image)

President Obama’s proposal to require mental health professionals report to authorities when they think a patient is a shooting threat is posing a difficult ethical dilemma.

Washington State Congressman Jim McDermott has a unique perspective. He’s a longtime psychiatrist who has championed numerous gun control measures during his over 20 years in Congress.

“It triggers a very difficult situation for a psychiatrist, in that you are giving the patient the protection of anonymity and security and not saying anything at the same time you have a responsibility to the public,” McDermott said in an interview with Seattle’s Morning News.

McDermott has treated a number of patients who’ve said threatening things at one time or another. But the challenge for a mental health professional is determining if they’re really dangerous.

“Very often in marital disputes or job difficulties or all kinds of things people make statements and you have to make a judgement about whether they are real or they are just blowing off steam,” he said.

New proposals including legislation passed this week in New York would authorize law enforcement to seize firearms from patients reported as potentially dangerous. Those that don’t would be added to a criminal background database and prohibited from buying guns.

McDermott insisted he would always report someone if he felt they were a danger regardless of whether it’s the law or not. But there’s plenty of opposition to making that a requirement.

“The idea of a federal bureaucrat or your own doctor sharing your information with a federal bureaucrat I think is something that would worry a lot of Americans,” said Congressman Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.).

McDermott said President Obama was wise to issue a number of executive orders around some of the most controversial gun measures he announced Wednesday rather than trying to convince a sharply divided Congress to approve them.

McDermott is confident Congress will ultimately pass at least several potentially controversial measures including a limit on the number of bullets in a magazine, mandatory background checks for all gun buyers and an assault weapons ban.

“I say that today we can get the votes if the people press the members of Congress. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not Democrat or Republican. It’s how you view protection and safety in a society.”

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