Montana and Florida Curtail Doctors’ Speech

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Montana has become the second state to limit the freedom of medical professionals to discuss firearm ownership with patients.  In 2013, Montana enacted a law that requires medical providers to treat patients regardless of whether they are willing to discuss their ownership, possession or use of firearms. This is a weaker version of a 2011 Florida law that threatens health care practitioners with discipline for routine inquiries about guns ownership. That U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida struck down that law as a violation of the First Amendment in June 2012.

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A study on firearm storage counseling by family physicians found that 64 percent of participants who received verbal firearm storage safety counseling from their doctors improved their gun safety by the end of the study.  Eight other states beyond Montana and Florida have introduced, but not enacted, similar legislation.

Want to know more? Check out other recent examples of extreme gun laws and policies in America on our Extremism in Action page.

Taking a Stand on “Docs vs. Glocks” in Florida

kids and gun safety

Florida is known for having some of the most extreme gun laws in the country. Remember, for example, its so-called “stand your ground” (or “shoot first”) law that received national attention in the aftermath of the tragic Trayvon Martin shooting? Florida also enacted one of America’s first “shall issue” laws, requiring law enforcement to issue concealed weapons permits to almost anyone who wants to carry a loaded, hidden handgun in public.

Florida outdid itself in 2011, however, when it became the first state in the nation to prohibit doctors from asking their patients about gun ownership. A group of Florida doctors and physician groups soon filed a lawsuit, arguing that the outrageous law interfered with their free speech rights under the First Amendment, as well as their ability to care for their patients by warning them about the dangers of firearm ownership. The district court agreed, finding that “[t]he law chills practitioners’ speech in a way that impairs the provision of medical care and may ultimately harm the patient.” The court’s order prohibited the state from enforcing the law.

The American Bar Association has also spoken out against “medical gag laws.” At its annual meeting last month, the ABA adopted a resolution expressing strong opposition to such laws. The accompanying report stated that:

For medical practitioners to meet their preventive care and safety counseling responsibilities, they must be able to discuss a broad range of topics with their patients related to known risk factors. This unfettered access allows doctors to adequately assess and address these factors with their patients. Risk factors that may be discussed vary depending on the age of the patient, but for adults often include alcohol consumption, illicit drug use, smoking, diet, and exercise; pediatricians often discuss wearing seat belts and bicycle helmets, the potential dangers of backyard swimming pools, and the need to securely store household cleaners and toxins. Firearms in the home are another known risk factor that doctors may choose to discuss with their patients or the parents of young patients.

We couldn’t agree more. We are proud to join with America’s preeminent legal organization, which has nearly 400,000 members, in taking a stand on this important topic. The Law Center will be filing an amicus (friend of the court) brief in the appellate court in support of the doctors fighting for their rights to care for their patients in Florida. Our brief will focus on the significant health risks presented by guns in the home and will be joined by public health groups, including the American Academy of Suicidology.