Shooting death of St. Louis hospital patient reignites debate over armed guards in healthcare

Three nurses walking down a hospital corridor
There is a fierce debate on whether armed guards belong in hospitals. (Getty/VILevi)

Armed guards at a St. Louis hospital shot and killed a knife-wielding patient earlier this month, and the incident has reignited the contentious debate on whether such guards belong in hospitals. 

At Barnes-Jewish Hospital, guards shot a patient after he muscled his way out of a treatment room and pulled out two knives, which he refused to drop, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. The man was suicidal, police said, though the reason he was being treated at the hospital was not released. 

Officials at Barnes-Jewish declined to comment on security measures, but that hospital is the only BJC Healthcare hospital where guards are armed with guns, according to the article. Other health systems with hospitals in the St. Louis area have armed guards, like St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield. 

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Hospitals across the country have tightened security measures—including with armed guards—following violent incidents. In Florida, for example, a number of hospitals added armed guards and instituted bag checks after a 2016 shooting at Parrish Medical Center left a patient and her caregiver dead. 

Workplace violence in healthcare is common; 75% of workplace assaults reported between 2011 and 2013 occurred in healthcare settings. Despite being common, incidents of workplace violence are often unreported

However, opponents of employing armed guards in hospitals argue that the practice doesn't prevent violence but can instead encourage it. In addition to the risks inherent in having weapons in a healthcare setting, just the uniforms can make patients uncomfortable, critics say. 

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Dave Dillon, spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, told the St. Louis newspaper that "in a perfect world" security guards with handguns would not be needed, but sometimes protecting patients and staff may require measures that seemingly go against a hospital's "do no harm" mantra. 

"These are hard conversations with ourselves," Dillon told the publication. "There's no line in the sand on the appropriate intervention."