Florida doctors win back right to talk to patients about guns
A federal appeals court in Florida overturned a state law Thursday that prevented doctors from talking to patients about guns and gun safety, ruling that the law violates doctors’ constitutional rights to free speech.
The 2011 Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act stipulated that doctors risk losing their medical licenses if they discuss or record information about patients’ gun ownership and practices — unless they believed “in good faith” that the discussion was relevant to treating the patient. Shortly after the law was passed, several medical organizations and doctors filed lawsuits against the state, igniting a legal battle dubbed “Docs vs. Glocks.”
In a 10-1 decision, judges on the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with the docs.
“Due to the challenged provisions of FOPA, and in order to avoid discipline by the Board of Medicine, these doctors are engaged in self-censorship,” the court said in its majority opinion. “Against their professional judgment, they are no longer asking patients questions related to firearm ownership, no longer using questionnaires with such questions, and/or no longer maintaining written records of consultations with patients about firearms.”
The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend that doctors ask patients if there are firearms in their homes, according to the opinion. Research shows that a doctor’s advice helps gun owners store firearms more safely.
The appeals court judges did find that one part of the law was constitutional: Doctors can’t discriminate against or deny service to patients who own or use firearms. In doing so, the judges pointed out that lawmakers who drafted the act had heard of only “about six anecdotes” related to doctors treating patients improperly because they owned guns.
“I think this decision sends a clear message that states have to stay out of the business of instructing doctors what to tell their patients about firearms,” said Hannah Shearer, an attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s just kind of [a] lame argument that gun owners are so fragile that they need protection from doctors’ questions.”
Florida was the first state to pass what has been called a “doctor gag order,” but at least 10 other states have introduced similar bills in the past few years, according to the gun safety group Everytown Research. So far, not one has passed.
“Certainly, if a state was going to pass a law like this after this decision,” Shearer said, “it would be susceptible to the same kind of legal challenge.”