Does the medical profession have a right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment? That is a fundamental question in a legal challenge to a 2011 Florida law that says otherwise.
In 2011, the Florida Legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act, commonly referred to as “Docs vs. Glocks.” The law restricts doctors and medical staff from asking patients questions about gun ownership.
Some members of the medical community, particularly pediatricians, consider it an important question to ask parents, who might not know how to safely secure their firearms. Not everyone is a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization that includes teaching respect for firearms, whether they are to be used for sport or self defense.
Doctors who are concerned about the chilling effect this law has on their freedom to discuss the hidden dangers of children and firearms teamed up with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians. They went to court to strike down the law.
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A Miami federal judge did just that. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke found the law unconstitutional as a restriction on free speech. She is right. Doctors who inquire about this safety issue could be fined or lose their licenses.
But, incredibly, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta recently overruled Cooke’s finding. The 2-1 decision stated that the law is not designed to restrict free speech but rather assure good medical care. Representing the majority opinion, Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote that the law “simply informs physicians that inquiring about a private matter irrelevant to medical care isn’t part of the practice of good medicine and that, as always, a physician may face discipline for not practicing good medicine.”
Doctors have felt increasingly badgered by government regulations that constrain their ability to uphold the Hippocratic Oath that requires them to responsibly treat all patients for the purpose of saving lives. It is alarming that Florida has a law that hampers that function. It says Tallahassee does not have confidence in the medical profession to do the right thing by their patients, so their speech and activities must be monitored. It is an odd position for Republicans, who espouse fewer government regulations to take. Unless, of course, the regulation favors the NRA’s position, then it is OK.
The NRA, which heavily lobbied for the law, hails the appellate decision. Marion Hammer, a former president of the NRA who lobbies for the organization in Florida, is quoted in Politico.com saying “the intent is to protect the privacy of firearms owners and to stop the political interrogation of gun owners and the children of gun owners when they seek medical care.”
In other words, this is about politics and not about good medical care.
Physicians are expected to advise patients about healthy lifestyle choices and some may be uncomfortable to hear. Questions might range from whether a child wears a helmet when riding a bicycle riding to whether a child can swim. Is a teenager sexually active? Practicing safe sex? Talk about personal! So why should it be alarming if a doctor asks whether a child lives in a home with firearms, as if there were no risks?
Doctors, by and large, are only trying to prevent accidental injury or death; it goes with their mission statement. The conversation and treatment is personal and confidential; it is what we expect from speaking to a doctor. Patients are always free to change doctors if they do not like their style or message.
Supporting the Second Amendment does not mean you cannot support gun safety, as well. Too many families carry heavy hearts because of the loss of a child because of a an accident with a firearm.
Florida is the only state that has this law, which infringes on a doctor’s ability to exercise good judgment when speaking to and advising patients. Doctors should be free to do what they are trained to do — save lives. It would be best for Florida residents if politics did not interfere with that all-important mission.