Doctors can ask patients about guns, Florida federal court rules

Posted February 17, 2017

The court felt the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 after passage by the state legislature, placed health care providers at a risky crossroads that in the end had a chilling effect on how they could talk to their patients.

A federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that Floridadoctors can talk to patients about gun safety, declaring a law aimed at restricting such discussions a violation of the First Amendment's right to free speech.

Three-judge panels of the same court had issued conflicting rulings in a long-running challenge to the law brought by 11,000 medical providers and others.

The ruling can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The act prohibited Florida doctors from asking routine questions about their patients' gun ownership, unless that information was deemed relevant to patient care or the safety of others.

Several large professional medical groups have said it is within the bounds of ethical medical care for doctors to ask about gun safety at home, in the way a physician might ask parents of small children if they have a backyard pool.

The court roundly rejected that argument, ruling that questions from a physician can not in any way be construed as infringing upon an individual's gun rights.

Physicians who broke the law could be disciplined by the Florida Board of Medicine.

Florida officials defending the law argued that it was necessary to protect citizens against "private encumbrances" on their Second Amendment rights by doctors. The state might prevent doctors from encouraging their patients to vote in favor of universal health care or prohibit a physician from criticizing the Affordable Care Act.

The law doesn't give doctors power to take guns away and patients are still free to refuse to answer questions about firearm ownership, just as they can when asked about sexual activity or drug use.

It also barred physicians from noting in medical records whether patients owned guns.

When the law was barely a year old, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke of Miami declared it to be unenforceable, as the legislature failed to "provide any standards for practitioners to follow".

Firm opponents of the Firearm Owners Privacy Act include the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Pro-gun groups are less than pleased with the ruling, saying the decision has grave implications for Second Amendment rights in the Sunshine State. Rather, as Wintemute told The Post, doctors should educate themselves about gun ownership, in order to offer nonjudgmental advice on safe gun storage. The physician refused to see them anymore. The opinion only applies to portions of the law that restricted doctors inquiring about firearms.

Thursday's 90-page decision - comprised of two majority opinions authored by different judges, as well as a dissent - came from the full appellate court after the plaintiffs requested what is known as an "en banc" review.