Federal judge bars Florida "don't ask" gun law

The measure prevented physicians from querying patients about firearms in their homes unless it was pertinent to medical records.

By Alicia Gallegos — Posted Sept. 26, 2011

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In a victory for Florida pediatricians and family physicians, a federal judge has blocked a state law that restricted physicians from asking patients if they have guns at home, calling the measure unconstitutional.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on June 1 approved the National Rifle Assn.-backed law. Under the legislation, physicians who asked patients about gun ownership without justification, entered unnecessary information about such ownership in medical records or discriminated against gun-owning patients faced possible sanctions by the state medical board.

The NRA and others said asking patients about guns in the home was a violation of privacy.

Florida physicians, including representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Family Physicians, challenged the law in court. They argued that the statute harmed doctor-patient communication and went against professional guidelines on counseling parents about environmental risks to children.

In her Sept. 14 opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Marcia G. Cooke said the loss of doctors' First Amendment freedoms, even for a minimal period, constituted an irreparable injury.

"The evidence on the record shows that practitioners have eliminated questions about firearm ownership from intake questionnaires and either curtailed or stopped routine counseling on firearm safety as a result of this law," Cooke said. "Practitioners are self-censoring themselves out of fear of disciplinary actions. Plaintiffs' injury is their chilled free speech."

Children's safety at issue

For the time being, the injunction allows Florida doctors to continue discussing relevant safety issues with parents, said Florida pediatrician Louis St. Petery, MD. He's executive vice president of the AAP's Florida chapter, the Florida Pediatric Society.

"The NRA has said we are trying to rid the state of Florida of firearms. That's not true. What we want is to make sure guns are stored properly so that children do not inadvertently get hurt or killed," he said.

At this article's deadline, Marion Hammer, executive director of the local NRA affiliate, the United Sportsmen of Florida, had not returned messages seeking comment. Hammer's group was one of the main proponents that helped push the measure through the state Legislature.

The governor plans to appeal the court decision, said Lane Wright, Scott's press secretary. "The Privacy of Firearm Owners legislation was carefully crafted to respect the First Amendment," Wright said in an email. "We're confident we'll win."

Lisa A. Cosgrove, MD, president of the Florida Pediatric Society, said the decision for now means pediatricians can resume their prime duties to patients.

"Pediatricians simply want to do what they do best: protect children. We hope that now we will be able to get back to the business of asking parents to keep their guns, pools and poisons where they can't harm kids," she said in a statement.

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