MIAMI — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked enforcement of a first-in-the-nation law that restricted what Florida physicians can say about guns to their patients, ruling the law violates the U.S. Constitution's free speech guarantees and does not trample gun rights.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke said it was important to emphasize "the free flow of truthful, non-misleading information within the doctor-patient relationship."
"This case concerns one of our Constitution's most precious rights – the freedom of speech," said Cooke, appointed to the bench by Republican President George W. Bush. "A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect or interfere with the patient's right to continue to own, possess or use firearms."
The law was passed earlier this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law June 2 by GOP Gov. Rick Scott. The governor, the National Rifle Association and other supporters contended it was a violation of privacy and possibly the Second Amendment for doctors to question patients about guns at home.
But physicians' groups representing some 11,000 doctors and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence sued. They said the law halted meaningful discussions between doctors and patients – especially parents with guns – about keeping the weapons out of the hands of children.
Dr. Lisa Cosgrove, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the ruling will help save lives. She said doctors routinely counsel patients about safety issues at home, on everything from backyard swimming pools to use of bike helmets.
"Sometimes it's just a reminder that if you are a gun owner, you make sure you are a responsible gun owner," said Cosgrove, a pediatrician. "Children cannot make these decisions about safety for themselves. Parents have to be the guides for that."
Daniel Vice, senior attorney with the Washington-based Brady Center, said the decision invalidates a "dangerous and blatantly unconstitutional law."
"Especially with eight kids shot and killed every day in America, it's crucial that doctors be able to talk about the severe risk of guns in the home," Vice said.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and Scott's office did not immediately say whether there would be an appeal, and NRA officials in Tallahassee could not be reached for comment. Cooke's ruling temporarily halts enforcement of the law, but the judge indicated that decision would likely be made permanent.
The chief Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. Greg Evers, said he was disappointed in the ruling and that he expected an appeal. The lead House supporter, GOP Rep. Jason Brodeur, said doctors could accomplish their goal by giving gun safety talks to all Floridians.
"Direct questions about firearm ownership when it has nothing to do with medical care is simply pushing a political agenda, which doesn't belong in exam rooms," Brodeur said in an email.
The law arose out of the so-called "Ocala incident," in which a young mother in 2010 was dropped from a doctor's practice because she refused to answer questions about gun ownership. Her cause found its way to the Legislature, which came up with similar instances around the state that some lawmakers compared to interrogations.
At one point, lawmakers wanted to make violations punishable by a five-year prison sentence and $5 million fine. That was eventually scaled back to disciplinary action that could include loss of a doctor's medical license and a fine up to $10,000. There were also several exceptions, such as permission to ask questions about firearms to people with mental problems.
In her ruling, Cooke said she found very little evidence of widespread harassment or discrimination of gun owners by doctors.
"It is unlikely that a concern for some patients who may be offended or uncomfortable by questions regarding firearm ownership could justify this law," she said.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this story.
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