Federal judge shoots down Florida law banning docs from asking about guns

A federal judge has taken a figurative bullet for Florida-based physicians’ first amendment rights by blocking the enforcement of a law that has barred doctors from participating in gun ownership discourse with their patients.

A mere chamber click behind a preliminary injunction she issued last September, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke laminated her decision to shoot down the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act on June 29, citing an infringement of physicians’ rights to free speech. Cooke claimed that the law encouraged an unacceptable level of physician self-censorship, which in turn galvanized a “chilling effect” and impeded proper patient care. She also took issue with the level of vagueness inherent in the measure — not only was it a violation of the First Amendment, it also failed to "provide any standards for practitioners to follow" Cooke wrote.  

"What is curious about this law — and what makes it different from so many other laws involving practitioners' speech — is that it aims to restrict a practitioner's ability to provide truthful, non-misleading information to a patient, whether relevant or not at the time of the consult with the patient," she added, reiterating the importance of “preventative medicine.”

The Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act left the barrel in 2011, when the state legislature sided with an Ocala couple who contended that their physician refused them service after they dodged questions the doctor asked them about guns. Governor Rick Scott’s signature secured the act’s passage into law shortly thereafter.  

But given the harsh consequences and numerous restrictions perpetuated by the legislation, a group of physicians, including those from the Florida Pediatric Society and Florida Academy of Family Physicians, was prompted to assess their exit wounds and cultivate an exit strategy. They presented their case to Cooke and were universally pleased with the decision handed down.

"I'm ecstatic our challenge was successful," Bernd Wollschlaeger, MD, a North Miami Beach plaintiff representing the Florida Academy of Family Physicians, told to the McClatchy Tribune."We're acting out of common sense, and this is a common sense issue. My fear is the state will appeal and keeping wasting money to fight windmills. This is an ideologically driven, politically motivated vendetta by the NRA (National Rifle Association) that has to stop."

The National Rifle Association made attempts at intervening in the lawsuit, but Cooke disallowed the intrusion on the grounds that the state could adequately defend itself. In September 2011, AAFP Board Chair Roland Goertz, MD, M.B.A., of Waco, Texas, spoke to the NRA’s concerns in a letter to the organizations president, David Keene.

"The AAFP is not against gun ownership," Goertz wrote. "Family physicians share the desire of the NRA to keep families safe. The AAFP also values freedom of speech regarding the patient/physician relationship and the effectiveness of open communication between the patient and physician in improving and maintaining good health."

Experts and state officials believe the decision will likely be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Although this ceasefire over the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act is liable not to last, for now, physicians in Florida no longer have to shy away from a potentially life-saving conversation, Cooke implied. 

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