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Florida Doctors Fight Back Against Gun Lobby Gag Law

Do you want your doctor to tell you the truth about health risks, based on the best evidence that can be brought to bear? When it comes to the risks of guns in the home, particularly to children, the gun lobby wants to prevent doctors from doing that.
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Do you want your pediatrician to assess existing risks to your child's health, based on the latest scientific knowledge? Do you want your doctor to tell you the truth about those risks, based on the best evidence that can be brought to bear? When it comes to the risks of guns in the home, particularly to children, the gun lobby wants to prevent doctors from telling you the truth and prevent you from hearing it.

At the insistence of the National Rifle Association, Florida Governor Rick Scott has signed extraordinary legislation that threatens doctors with disciplinary action, including fines or even loss of their license to practice medicine, for "unnecessarily harassing a patient about firearm ownership during an examination." What constitutes "unnecessary harassment" is left undefined. Is it "unnecessary harassment" to tell a gun-owning parent that his decision to leave a loaded handgun in the nightstand poses a severe risk of injury to his curious 6-year-old? The new Florida gag law bars doctors from even asking parents whether they have a gun in the home, unless the doctor has a "good faith" belief that it is "relevant to the patient's medical care or safety." What in the world does that mean?

Just as pediatricians have long advised parents on the best ways to reduce the risks of harm to children from household poisons, unsupervised swimming pools and riding bikes without safety helmets, they also have advised them how to best protect their kids from the lethal danger of firearms. The fact is that more than forty percent of gun-owning households with children and teens store their guns unlocked and one quarter of those homes store them loaded. These loaded, unsecured guns are like ticking time bombs, posing a clear and present danger to young people. In 2007, 138 children and teens were killed in unintentional shootings; in 2008, almost 4,000 were wounded. Indeed, the rate of unintentional firearm death for children 14 years and younger is nine times higher in the U.S. than in twenty-five other industrialized countries combined.

The presence of easily-accessible guns in the home also increases the risk of adolescent suicide. Each day, two American teenagers commit suicide with guns, the vast majority with their parents' gun. More than ninety percent of suicide attempts with guns are fatal, whereas the fatality rate for attempts with drugs or cutting is around three percent. Unsecured guns in the home have cost thousands of young lives, as they transform momentary adolescent depressions, over romantic break-ups or bad grades, into unspeakable tragedies.

Because of these well-established risks, the American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended advising parents that firearms should be removed from homes with children or, if parents choose to have guns in the home, they should be stored unloaded, locked and separate from ammunition. For homes with adolescents, AAP also has recommended that practitioners inform parents that guns in the home are particularly dangerous because of the potential for impulsive use by teens, resulting in suicide, homicide or unintentional injury.

The gun lobby has now decided that it can no longer tolerate physicians, who have ultimate credibility on issues involving the health of children, telling the truth about guns in the home. The Florida gag law was written to have a profoundly chilling effect on any doctor who seeks to implement the best thinking of the medical profession on the risks of firearms. How many doctors in Florida will refrain from addressing those risks with parents, for fear of being charged with "unnecessary harassment" of gun owners? How many Florida children will perish, or be seriously wounded, because doctors are intimidated from providing life-saving advice about safe storage of guns?

In the name of the Second Amendment, the NRA is quite willing to discard the First Amendment. The Florida gag law is a gross violation of the First Amendment right of physicians to provide preventative health care advice to families within the highly confidential confines of the physician-patient relationship.

Florida doctors are fighting back. Represented by lawyers from the Brady Center and the law firm of Ropes & Gray, three Florida physician organizations, as well as several individual doctors, have filed suit to strike down the new gag law as a violation of the First Amendment.

This lawsuit is not an effort to restrict anyone's Second Amendment right to have a gun. It seeks to vindicate the right of doctors to communicate the dangers inherent in the exercise of the Second Amendment right. Patients don't have to take the advice being offered; indeed, they have the right to vehemently disagree. But the State of Florida has no business invading the doctor-patient relationship to dictate to doctors what they can, and cannot, tell parents about the dangers of guns in the home.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009).

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