TALLAHASSEE — Gun rights advocates early this year scored a major coup when they successfully pushed a first-of-its-kind law prohibiting health care providers from asking patients about guns.
Seen by many as a bellwether of future skirmishes across the country, Florida lawmakers approved a measure that places restrictions on the ability of physicians and other providers to ask patients if they own guns, how they store them and whether there are children present in the home.
Backed by the politically powerful National Rifle Association, even the Florida Medical Association blinked after language was inserted to give doctors more protections in their ability to query patients. Still, the symbolism was evident.
The controversial measure was quickly challenged, an inevitable and not unexpected clash in an ongoing battle between the First and Second Amendments.
The latest wrinkle in the case came last week as U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke temporarily shelved the new law by granted a temporary injunction to a group of physicians who filed suit over the Firearm Owners Protection Act.
Tipping her hand a bit, Cooke ordered the injunction after saying the plaintiffs have a good case and dismissing the argument that allowing health care providers to query their patients on gun ownership violated the patient’s Second Amendment right to bear arms under the U.S. Constitution.
“A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect nor interfere with the patient’s right to continue to own or use firearms,” Cooke wrote.
The lawsuit was filed in June on behalf of a group of physicians who argued their First Amendment right of free speech was being violated if they could not speak freely with their patients about guns. Health care providers sometimes ask patients, especially those with young children, if they own guns and how those weapons are stored.
Witnesses testified during legislative debate that the queries were part of a battery of questions often given to patients to address potential health hazards in the home such as the storage of poisons or whether the patient owns a pool. The measure, they argued, inserted the state improperly into the usually sacrosanct doctor-patient relationship.
Contacted after the stay was issued, Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said he stood by the intent of the bill, which he said was to protect the privacy of gun owners. The suit was prompted after a Central Florida couple was told by their physician to find another doctor after they refused to answer questions about guns in their home.
“Direct questions about firearm ownership when it has nothing to do with medical care is simply pushing a political agenda, which doesn’t belong in exam rooms,” Brodeur said. “If physicians are worried about safety then I encourage them to give the safety talk to all patients. It is important to note that firearm safety talks are not prohibited at all.”
The next step in the saga will also occur in Cooke’s court, as combatants ready for a federal court fight that will likely wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, physicians will retain the upper hand in the battle that has fittingly been dubbed “Docs versus Glocks.”
Email Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.