Florida Doctors Seek the Right to Ask Patients about Guns

It’s guns vs. speech in the latest constitutional battle to hit Florida, one that could effect the rights of doctors and patients across the Sunshine State.

A group of physicians filed suit in Miami’s federal court earlier this month, asking the court to shoot down a new law prohibiting health practitioners from routinely asking their patients if they own guns and have them properly stored.

The statute, titled “Privacy of Firearm Owners” and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on June 2, prohibits healthcare professionals from asking patients about gun ownership unless the information is relevant to the patient’s medical care, safety or the safety of others. The law also bars practitioners from entering the information into a patient’s medical record. Doctors who violate the law face fines up to $10,000 per offense and potential loss of license, according to the physician’s complaint.

The Miami Herald’s Michael Peltier reports that “[t]he legislation appears to have originated after an Ocala couple complained that their doctor had told them to find another physician after they refused to disclose whether they owned guns and how they were stored…The bill (HB 155) easily passed both chambers along largely party line votes – 88-30 in the House and 27-10 in the Senate.”

The debate over the law pits two Constitutional rights – the right to free speech under the First Amendment and the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms – against each other, requiring the court to decide where a doctor’s legitimate and thorough care of a patient ends and overreaching into private, constitutionally-protected matters begins. While courts have long upheld free speech (with certain exceptions), including the right to ask questions as axiomatic to democratic society, the Supreme Court has also made clear that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm and to use that firearm for lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the person’s home.

The statute’s terms seem to give doctor’s some leeway – they can ask about guns if “the information is relevant to the patient’s medical care, safety or the safety of others” – but the plaintiffs apparently don’t want to wait and see how courts will interpret this language. Calling it the “Physician Gag law,” they claim that HB 155 chills the free and open exchange of information between patient and doctor that is essential to proper health care treatment. “This case is about the core principle of the First Amendment that the government cannot tell individual citizens what they can and cannot say. Patients have a right to trust that doctors are providing their honest and best advice about matters of health and safety. The Florida Legislature cannot require that doctors first put that advice through a government-approved filter,” Plaintiffs’ co-counsel Doug Hallward-Driemeier told Stacy Singer of the Palm Beach Post.

Florida National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, whose organization reportedly pushed for the law, has a different take on the issue. “We pay doctors to be doctors and give us medical care,” Hammer said in an interview with the Capital News Service last week. “Instead, they are trying to be social workers and bring their gun-ban politics into the examining room.”

The Ft. Lauderdale lawyers at Anidjar & Levine, P.A. are pleased to serve clients throughout South Florida, including in Coral Springs, Pompano Beach and Hialeah, in a variety of matters including personal injury law. We are dedicated to providing high quality, professional legal services and make every effort to get the best results for our clients. If you need legal assistance with a personal injury claim, our experienced Florida attorneys are prepared to aggressively defend your rights and help get you the compensation you deserve.

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