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Mara Hatfield

Is the NRA Gagging Doctors in Florida?

» Written by // August 14, 2014 //


Every time I took my children to our pediatrician’s office, I was reminded of why I saw the same pediatrician as a kid and when I came back home to Florida, brought my children there, too.

There is a sign in every treatment room—it reminds you of one of the most important questions to ask when you bring your children to someone else’s house for a play-date or sleepover:

Are there any guns in your home?

If so… Is it accessible? Is it locked up?  Is it kept loaded?

It ranks right up there with “Do you have a pool?”  “Who’s watching the kids?”  “Do you let your toddler watch rated R movies?”  “Do you keep cage fighting dogs or perhaps exotic seventeen foot pythons?”

I love my pediatrician’s office because he has a sign about those sorts of things.   But that’s not all.

Our first visit in 2005, the pediatrician’s nurse asked us if we had a gun in the home.    It was an appropriate question, it came right after she asked “Do you work?” and “Who watches the children when you are at work.”   It was in the same line of “Does anyone in your house smoke?”  We said no, but I am sure if we said yes, the follow up would be “Does that person smoke in the home?”

doctor surgeon man with face mask holding shotgun silhouette

These all seem like incredibly good questions for a doctor to ask, because they are.  And not just for pediatricians, but for lots of doctors—including those treating the elderly and the clinically depressed.  And, if I were a doctor prescribing drugs with side effects, I would want to know if there’s a gun and kids in the house.  And if there is, I might just want to refuse to treat that person with a psychotropic drug while they have a gun.  I’d want a record of who has guns so I can treat appropriately—just the same as I would want to have a record of who is on what medicine.

I let my pediatrician talk to my children about the most personal stuff in their lives:

  • Are you pooping once a day?
  • Is anyone at school bullying you?
  • Has anyone touched you inappropriately?
  • Why wouldn’t I want them to be able to explore gun safety?

So when I came back home to my balmy, beautiful childhood home in Florida, I was glad to see these signs in my doctor’s office and the questions being asked.  We live in a state that has its share of gun owners (over one million concealed weapons) and the doctor’s office seems like a perfectly calm place to discuss these types of issues.

In 2011 though, the Florida legislature passed a  gun law that makes no sense and, in fact, invades the confidential nature and the right for my doctor to have a conversation with me. Governor Rick Scott readily signed it into law:

Doctors can’t ask you whether there is a gun in your home unless the doctor believes in good faith that this information is relevant to the patient’s medical care, safety, or the safety of others.

Inane, frivolous, and silly. Who sits around thinking this stuff up anyway?

The National Rifle Association and their lobbyists, that’s who.

Who spends tax payer money to pass these laws? The Florida legislature, that’s who.

For what other reason would a doctor ask about guns than as it relates to safety?  Is someone pretending guns don’t have the propensity to be dangerous if in the wrong hands?  The hands of a child are the wrong hands and wouldn’t a little education about gun safety coming from a respected professional be a good thing?

The idea of requiring a doctor to prove that a question about gun ownership must reasonably be related to safety is as silly as requiring the same foundation before the doctor can ask about smoking cigarettes, taking drugs or owning a pool.

Over seven thousand children were hospitalized for gun related injuries in the two years before passage of this law (in 2009).  Ironically, Florida law allows the Emergency room doctor to ask about the gun that shot the child, but prohibits a discussion about the gun before it injures the child.

We have a lot of ridiculous ideas about gun laws. In fact, we are regularly and rightfully ridiculed by other states and countries who have a more informed approach to handling guns.

But it is surprising to hear that the Eleventh Circuit recently held that this law was constitutional, after being challenged by the doctors who refused to have their First Amendment Right to Free Speech curtailed and who also were concerned enough about the safety of their patients to “put their money where their mouth was”.

When I saw the news of the 11th Circuit decision, I had to look up the opinion to believe it.  Sure enough, several doctors challenged the law by suing to overturn it.  They wanted to protect their patients and their right to exercise free speech, to keep asking those questions. The doctors won in the trial court level.

Our state Attorney General, backed by gun lobbyists, appealed.  The Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision. Florida’s Attorney General won; the National Rifle Association won;  my doctor, my kids, your kids, just lost.

The 11th Circuit’s opinion stated as follows:

“The Act seeks to protect patients’ privacy by restricting irrelevant inquiry and record-keeping by physicians regarding firearms. The Act recognizes that when a patient enters a physician’s examination room, the patient is in a position of relative powerlessness.”

No.  I am not powerless in my doctor’s office.  The doctor’s office is the best place to have these very conversations. Nothing compels me to provide information to a physician or, for that matter, to have any conversation with him at all about a topic I do not wish to discuss.

The National Rifle Association and their lobbyists insist that “guns are not dangerous, people are dangerous”. If that is true, why have they helped to legislate a gag on the very professionals who are in the best position to educate the “dangerous people”?


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