Doctors Can Ask Patients About Guns, Florida Federal Court Rules

MIAMI — A federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that Florida doctors can talk to patients about gun safety, declaring a law aimed at restricting such discussions a violation of the First Amendment’s right to free speech.



In a 10-1 decision, the full panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law, known as the Privacy of Firearm Owners act, violates the First Amendment rights of doctors.

A federal judge blocked the 2011 law from taking effect shortly after it was passed, and legal challenges by medical and gun control groups have been moving through the courts ever since. In 2014, a three-judge panel of the 11th circuit upheld the constitutionality of the Florida law.

Thursday’s ruling overturned the panel’s decision, noting there’s no evidence that by asking about guns, doctors were in any way infringing on the second amendment rights of their patients, NPR’s Greg Allen reported.

As the majority decision states, “Florida does not have carte blanche to restrict the speech of doctors and medical professionals on a certain subject without satisfying the demands of heightened scrutiny,” continuing:

“As part of their medical practices, some doctors routinely ask patients about various potential health and safety risks, including household chemicals, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, swimming pools, and firearms. A number of leading medical organizations, and some of their members, believe that unsecured firearms ‘in the home increase risks of injury, especially for minors and those suffering from depression or dementia.’

“In an effort to prevent and reduce firearm-related deaths and injuries, particularly to children, the American Medical Association ‘encourages its members to inquire as to the presence of household firearms as a part of childproofing the home and to educate patients to the dangers of firearms to children.’

“The Florida law was passed in 2011, and targeted pediatricians who asked parents about firearms in the home. Under its provisions, doctors can be punished with a fine of up to $10,000, and can lose their medical licenses for discussing guns with patients.”

The decision upheld a portion of the law that explicitly prevents doctors from discriminating against patients who own guns.

The ruling did determine that some parts of the law could remain on the books, such as provisions allowing patients to decline to answer questions about guns and prohibiting health insurance companies from denying coverage or increasing premiums for people who lawfully own guns.

The case will return to U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami for a ruling that follows the 11th Circuit’s direction. The case could, however, also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.