Physicians, the First Amendment, and the NRA

Gun control in the United States is among the most polarizing issues we face. Strong feelings prevail, with few areas of agreement on either side of the issues. But blocking a physician’s opportunity to counsel a family against leaving a gun and ammunition where curious hands can cause terrible tragedies is in no one’s interest. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what at least one state is trying to do.

It's widely understood that physicians play an essential role in counseling patients to reduce their risk of death, illness or injury, whether from smoking, alcohol abuse, unhealthy eating or unsafe sex. Doctors routinely counsel families about car seats, bike helmets, and how to store medicines and cleaning supplies to keep children safe.

The National Rifle Association sponsors the Eagle Eddie Gun Safe Program to promote the protection and safety of children in schools and community groups across the country. According to the NRA website, “The purpose of the Eddie Eagle Program isn't to teach whether guns are good or bad, but rather to promote the protection and safety of children. Like swimming pools, electrical outlets, matchbooks and household poison, they're treated simply as a fact of everyday life. With firearms found in about half of all American households, it's a stance that makes sense.”

The NRA and its allies believe, however, that allowing a child’s doctor to inquire whether there are any guns at home and counsel a family on gun safety crosses into areas that impinge on a patient’s second amendment rights. It is “a sneaky backdoor attempt at gun control,” one commentator wrote. “A doctor’s job is to treat sick children and tell parents how to take care of sick children. They are not home monitors,” Marion Hammer, the NRA’s former president and Florida gun lobbyist, said in support of the Florida law.

In 2011, Florida legislators passed the Firearm Owner’s Privacy Act, which forbids physicians or other health care providers from asking patients if they own firearms or inquire about the presence of a firearm in patients’ or other family members’ homes. The law also restricts recording information about firearms in patients’ charts, or harassing or discriminating against patients because they own guns. Violation of any provision of the law constitutes grounds for disciplinary action under Florida’s medical licensing laws.

In 2012, a U.S. District Court judge declared the law an unconstitutional violation of physicians’ freedom of speech. “[T]he State, through this law, inserts itself in the doctor-patient relationship, prohibiting and burdening speech necessary to the proper practice of preventive medicine, thereby preventing patients from receiving truthful, non-misleading information,” the court wrote The state of Florida has appealed the case to the 11th Circuit Court, where a decision is pending. Several other states are considering similar legislation.

Your family doctor shouldn’t be forced to pick and choose which dangers he or she is legally allowed to be concerned about. Safe gun storage saves lives. Forbidding doctors from talking about guns and gun safety with their patients is short-sighted and dangerous. If you aren’t sure, read these heart wrenching stories.

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