The Gun Gag Order: Banning Life Saving Advice

June 9, 2011
Screen shot 2011-06-09 at 15.59.59.pngFlorida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law this month that makes it is illegal for any physician to "ask questions concerning the ownership of a firearm" or "harass...a patient about firearm ownership during an examination." Governor Scott says the bill will protect patient privacy. However, one has to question whether it is legal and constitutional to enact a law that threatens doctors with fines or the loss of their jobs if they talk with families about the very real risks of a gun in the home or offer advice on gun safety. Really, the new bill just protects patients from feeling bad or judged at their doctor's office. Even if patients only think their doctors are trying to make them feel bad about their guns, the doctors are culpable for disciplinary proceedings. The possibility of accidental death, grievous injury, or suicide apparently has nothing on being uncomfortable at a check-up.

When it was first proposed in January, the "gun gag bill" or "Docs vs. Glocks" sparked outrage among pediatricians, who said asking parents about guns in the home was not only their right but their responsibility. Many felt that including a discussion about gun safety during checkups at their office was no different than encouraging parents to use car seats or keep medicines out of reach. The issue here is not the right of gun ownership, but child safety. Given that Florida has some of the highest violent crimes rates in the nation, some of the weakest gun laws, and a gun death rate higher than the national average, the state should know better than to support any measure that makes Floridians more vulnerable to gun violence.

Currently, one-third of American homes with children under eighteen have a firearm, and 40% of these households store their guns unlocked. In one quarter of these homes, the gun is stored loaded. Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths. Gun death rates are 7 times higher in the states with the highest compared with the lowest household gun ownership, and of youths who committed suicide with firearms, 82% obtained the firearm from their home. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill a friend or family member than a burglar or other criminal. Because of these well-documented risks, the American Academy of Pediatrics train pediatricians to advise parents to keep guns away from children, secured with gun locks, and stored separately from ammunition. Politicians have no business telling doctors to stop this life saving advice.

On June 6, the Brady Center's Legal Action Project filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of several Florida physicians and medical groups. They are arguing that this law violates doctors' First Amendment rights, and blocks physicians from fulfilling their obligations to promote wellbeing. We'll be watching closely to see how things develop.

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