Once again free speech within the intimate confines of a doctor’s office is under attack.
In Florida, the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals today, doctors can risk losing their medical licenses or be fined up to $10,000 if they ask a patient either verbally or on a form whether they or a family member keep a firearm in the house.
According to JAMA, “the law states that licensed Florida health care practitioners and health care facilities ‘should refrain from making a written inquiry or asking questions concerning the ownership of a firearm or ammunition by the patient or by a family member of the patient, or the presence of a firearm in a private home or other domicile of the patient or a family member of the patient.’ Additionally, practitioners and facilities are instructed against recording such information (if disclosed) in the medical record.” Alabama, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia have all introduced similar bills that would prohibit physicians from asking about guns in the home.
The reason for this new law is ostensibly to protect the privacy of gun owners—at the expense of a child or other person living in that home who might unintentionally kill themselves or others with the firearm. Not surprisingly, the law was heavily lobbied for by the National Rifle Association despite the fact that proper storage and use of a firearm is a clear public health issue. The JAMA authors report that one in three homes contains a firearm and a dozen or more studies have found that when there’s a gun in the home, there is a 2- to 10-fold increase in risk of death from suicide, homicide, and unintentional injury depending on age of occupants.
Children and adolescents are the most likely to find poorly hidden firearms and harm themselves or others as a result. (The National Safety Council estimates that guns are responsible for 3,067 deaths per year among the age group 0 to 19.)
The JAMA authors call this Florida law an “unprecedented intrusion” into the physician-patient relationship—a charge that has similarly been lodged by others against a host of state-level abortion “informed consent” laws that require providers to deliver scripted—and some would charge, stilted—information to women about possible physical and psychological consequences of the abortion procedure. In some thirteen states doctors are also required by law to offer ultrasound exams to women seeking abortions, and in Oklahoma the law requires doctors to perform the ultrasound while making sure that the woman has a clear view of the screen during the exam. During the sonogram, doctors are directed to deliver a mandated script; providing details about a fetus’s development and the suggestion that the fetus may feel pain during the procedure.
Failure to perform this invasion of privacy and blatantly ideological intervention (because, really, why would a woman who has come to terminate a pregnancy need a sonogram to check on the proper development of her fetus?) can lead to a fine or loss of a physician’s medical license.
What’s ironic is that this particular kind of “intrusion” is perfectly acceptable to many of the same folks who are now championing the ban on talking about firearms. In fact the Supreme Court has twice upheld state laws that dictate what a physician may or may not say to a patient about abortion and its potential psychological risks. (see Rust v. Sullivan and Planned Parenthood v. Casey).
Since passage of the Florida firearms gag law, six individual physicians supported by the state’s chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians have filed an injunction with a federal judge to block the new law. So far, the court has only denied a request by the NRA to help the state defend the legislation.
The question I have at the end of the day is this: What kind of ethical contortions can lead legislators to so passionately protect the unborn while at the same time turn a blind eye to the very real dangers facing children living in homes where firearms might be unsafely stored?