A federal court ruled on Thursday that doctors have a constitutional right to ask about their patients’ firearms—and record their answers—even if those questions are irrelevant to the health of the patient.
The ruling ends a controversial battle between doctors and the state of Florida. The Florida state legislature passed a law in 2011 barring medical professionals from asking about their patients’ guns unless those questions were directly related to the patient’s situation (i.e., the patient was suicidal or violent).
The law was passed in response to two high-profile incidents. In the first, medical professionals separated children from their mother to ask about the mother’s guns. In the second incident, a pediatrician refused to treat a child after the child’s mother declined to answer questions about the guns she kept at home.
Despite this abuse, the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and other physician groups sued the state on the basis of First Amendment violations. Doctors have a First Amendment right to ask their patients about guns, they said, as long as these questions do not result in violations of the Second Amendment.
The full 11-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta sided with the doctors. “[T]here was no evidence whatsoever before the Florida Legislature that any doctors or medical professionals have taken away patients’ firearms or otherwise infringed on patients’ Second Amendment rights,” wrote Judge Adalberto J. Jordan.
Three aspects of the Florida law are unconstitutional, according to the court: the ban on inquiry, record-keeping, and anti-harassment all violate doctors’ First Amendment rights. Judges did concede, however, that doctors cannot discriminate against patients on the basis of firearm ownership.
Doctors, especially pediatricians, have been encouraged by medical associations since the early 90’s to ask patients about gun ownership. They justify these “routine” questions on the basis of preventing “gun violence” by ensuring safe firearm storage.
“Firearm violence is an important health problem, and most physicians agree that they should help prevent that violence,” Garen J. Wintemute, a public health expert at the University of California Davis, told The Washington Post in May.
Second Amendment proponents—including many medical professionals—are understandably concerned about these lines of questioning. Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership points out that medical organizations often move beyond a concern for firearm safety by advising doctors to pressure their patients to get rid of their guns.
This American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement, for example, begins by simply stating that “the absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents.” The organization supports “a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons; and the strongest possible regulations of handguns for civilian use.”
The AAP’s support of an “assault weapon” ban reveals their clear political bias, which is why many gun owners are also concerned about the record-keeping aspect of this issue. Answers to firearm-related questions are included in a patient’s permanent health record. Gun owners fear these records will one day be used against them, either as evidence for their parental irresponsibility or in a future effort to track guns and gun owners.