THE BLOG
07/31/2015 06:22 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Free Speech Is No Threat to Gun Ownership

Doctors and medical personnel throughout Florida will soon be under new orders: Talk to your patients about gun safety and risk losing your right to practice medicine.

Two federal judges, who last year ruled that "patient-privacy" and gun ownership trump freedom of speech, again upheld the gag order on doctors and medical personnel that will go into effect on August 4 -- unless a further appeal is filed.

The "Florida Firearms Owners Privacy Act," signed by Gov. Rick Scott, directs medical personnel to refrain from asking patients about firearm ownership; entering information about firearm ownership into the patient's medical record; "discriminat[ing]" against a patient on the basis of firearm ownership, or "unnecessarily harass[ing] a patient about firearm ownership." Violation is grounds for disciplinary action by the Department of Health, including fines, suspension or even revocation of a medical license.

The Legislature passed the Act, strongly supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), in response to one complaint from a constituent who said her doctor asked questions about firearm ownership and safety she didn't want to answer.

This law was challenged by a number of prominent physicians. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, representing several county medical societies and child welfare organizations, supported the challenge. We argued that the law unconstitutionally restricts free speech, hampering the ability of medical personnel to protect the health and safety of patients and their families. The District Court declared the law unconstitutional, but, in a 2-1 decision, the same appellate judges who issued this week's ruling overturned the lower court.

This cannot be the end of the story.

Florida legislators have lost their way on the issue of guns. There is a constitutional right (both state and federal) to own a gun. I get it! But the Second Amendment doesn't trump the First Amendment: The two are not even in conflict.

This is a conflict contrived by the NRA. They should be as strong on gun safety as they are on defending the right to own and possess a weapon. Talking about gun safety is no threat to gun ownership.

Guns, especially in a home with children, are a public health concern. Doctors need to encourage their safe storage to protect families. Given the number of accidental shootings when a child finds an unsecured gun or even brings the weapon to school, offering advice on firearm safety is the duty of every medical practitioner.

It is sad that two of the four federal judges who have looked at this law are so stuck on the gun ownership issue they can't appreciate the public safety concern.

The NRA's claim that doctors are exercising an anti-gun "political agenda" is an insult to every member of the medical profession. It is the duty of physicians to nudge you about any behavior that could cause harm to you -- or your children. When a doctor meets new patients, there are questions that are routinely asked: Do you use a child safety seat? Do you have a fence around your pool to prevent accidental drownings? Do you smoke in the presence of children, inflicting second-hand smoke on your children who then may end up tethered to an oxygen tank in 20 years with COPD?

"Do you safely store guns out of the reach of children?" is as much a part of the routine public health and safety concerns of doctors as any of these.

If this law is not struck down and actually inhibits doctors from advising patients on keeping weapons safely out of the reach of children, it could be dangerous -- especially for the children of Florida.