A Florida law that prohibited doctors from talking to patients about firearms was overturned Feb. 16. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law violated doctors’ freedom of speech.
Medical professionals and organizations sued the state of Florida over the provisions underlined in the Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act, which was passed in 2011. Six years later, the First and Second Amendments came into conflict in the decision of Wollschlaeger v. Governor, a case better known as “Docs v. Glocks.”
Doctors’ freedom of speech
Dr. Madeline Joseph, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics Florida Chapter, said that the American Academy of Pediatrics was among the medical organizations that worked to appeal the Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act.
“We filed it immediately so pediatricians didn’t lose their ability to discuss prevention with patients, including firearms,” Joseph said. “We had to ensure pediatricians around the state knew about that so they could keep educating people.”
Kevin Saunders, a professor of law and the Charles Clarke Chair in Constitutional Law at Michigan State University, said that the Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act violated the First Amendment because doctors talking to their patients about firearms clearly didn’t fit the exceptions.
“The First Amendment, with certain exceptions, gives you freedom to say what you want to say,” Saunders said.
Dr. Kenneth Stringer, an associate professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University, said anything that would limit doctors’ freedom to discuss safety issues with their patients should probably not be passed.
“They need to be able to discuss all the issues that are related to the overall well-being of their patients,” Stringer said.
Patients’ Second Amendment Rights
According to Saunders, the Florida law was aimed at protecting the Second Amendment rights of patients.
“It was more pro-gun than anti-doctor,” Saunders said.
According to Joseph, there were a few patient complaints to the state that prompted the creation of the Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act.
“It started with one family when a pediatrician asked them if they had guns in their house,” Joseph said. “They took it as discrimination and a violation of their Second Amendment rights. I think it was an overreaction. It could have been handled differently.”
April Zeoli, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, said physicians are not authorized to deny someone their Second Amendment rights.
“Pediatricians and general practitioners don’t have the authority to remove someone’s firearm rights, so it has always been a question of how their firearm rights would be not be protected just by talking to someone,” Zeoli said.
Dr. Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University, said the gun lobby seems to be terrified of anything that is slightly anti-gun.
“They see it as a slippery slope- if you ban one thing you may ban another,” Paneth said. “It stems from the absolutism of the National Rifle Association: Anything that is vaguely anti-gun should disappear.”
Gun violence as a health issue
According to Stringer, gun violence is a definite health issue.
“When you have firearms discharging, you can severely harm or take the life of another person,” Stringer said. “So, that’s why it becomes a health issue, because that can adversely affect the recipients of a bullet. That’s why it’s very important for us to be able to discuss this.”
Zeoli said there are many health concerns when it comes to guns and their misuse.
“In 2015, there were 489 unintentional or accidental firearm deaths in the U.S.,” Zeoli said. “That’s not insignificant. A lot of those are toddlers that found the gun and shot a parent or friend accidentally.”
According to Saunders, a lot of people, including the Florida Legislature, don’t see guns as being a health issue.
“They don’t want anyone to raise questions about having guns,” Saunders said.
According to Paneth, doctors need to talk to their patients about firearms because more kids die of accidents than any other single cause.
“Safety is a key part of child health because accidents kill more than cancer,” Paneth said. “The job of pediatricians is to protect child health.”
According to Joseph, if families are not counseled on firearm prevention, the number of firearm injuries would most likely rise. Before the law was overturned, she was also concerned about the possibility of lawmakers trying to limit more of what doctors could talk to their patients about.
“And if this happens, what is next?” Joseph said. “What else can’t we talk about? Are we getting politics into health and how we counsel families?”