How Florida Became the Most Savage State

Health and medicine explained.
July 28 2014 11:36 AM

The Bloodshed State

Doctors in Florida cannot legally protect children from guns.

Pediatrician, mother, and patient.
Pediatricians in Florida can do this, but they can’t ask that mom if she has a gun at home.

Photo by Sneksy/iStock/Thinkstock

Earlier this year, a Lake Worth, Florida, resident left his loaded gun sitting out on a table by the front door while he dressed for work. He heard a loud noise and ran into the hallway, where he discovered his daughter lying in a pool of blood with a bullet hole through her head. She was 3 years old. After her death from the accidental, self-inflicted gunshot, a neighbor told reporters he was stunned, claiming: “This kind of stuff doesn’t happen here.”

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

But this kind of stuff does happen in Florida—far more often than you’d think. In 2013 alone, at least 17 children in the state were killed by guns, and myriad more were wounded. These tragedies are part of a spiraling, nationwide epidemic of gun violence toward children, which includes a horrifyingly high number of absolutely preventable accidental shootings. A responsible state would pass and enforce gun safety laws to keep firearms away from children. But Florida did the opposite: The state passed a law gagging doctors from asking patients about guns, effectively preventing doctors from sharing safety tips to keep those guns out of children’s hands.

The gag law, nicknamed the Docs vs. Glocks law by its detractors, was passed by an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature brimming over with money from NRA lobbyists. It would seem to be an obvious First Amendment violation: For asking a patient a question that could save his child’s life, a doctor in Florida could lose her medical license or be fined $10,000. The state has no rational—let alone compelling—interest in censoring doctors from asking this basic question, much less preventing doctors from making evidence-based recommendations about public health and safety. And the law is so broad and vague that even an indirect inquiry could potentially qualify as illegal “harassment of a patient regarding firearm ownership.”

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On Friday, however, two Republican-appointed judges on an 11th Circuit panel upheld the law as constitutional, insisting that the gag order was merely a reasonable “regulation of professional conduct.” In the eyes of the majority, gun ownership—even among parents of young children—is “a private matter irrelevant to medical care,” and even an innocuous question about gun safety “is not part of the practice of good medicine.” Accordingly, the act is a perfectly valid use of state power to protect gun owners from having their privacy invaded by pesky doctors. Never mind about protecting children from accidentally shooting themselves with those guns; the real threat here, the court suggests, is that a gun owner might once have to hear his doctor tell him to keep his shotgun away from his toddler.

In the court’s view, in fact, gun owners are a disfavored, discriminated-against minority, desperately in need of protection from judgmental doctors with a liberal agenda. The majority implies that when doctors ask questions about gun safety, they’re really just pushing their own anti-gun views on their patients. And the state has every interest in shielding patients from this phantom peril: “It is no exaggeration,” the court writes, “to state that a patient may be in some cases essentially at the mercy of his or her physician.” In response to the dissent’s suggestion that patients might simply refuse to answer a doctor’s question about guns, the majority scoffs that “when patients are in examining rooms, they may feel powerless … [and] that their physicians demand an answer.”

The horror of this possibility, to the court’s mind, far outweighs the horror of child gun deaths. Indeed, from the majority opinion, you’d never guess that accidental child shootings ever occur in Florida, so casually does it dismiss the epidemic that pediatricians are now banned from attempting to remedy. For these two conservative judges, protecting gun owners from having to hear (but not answer) a question about gun safety is far more important than protecting children from accidentally shooting themselves or one another.

How did it come to this? How did Florida, a perennial swing state with a healthy center-left bloc, become the first victim of the NRA’s heinous crusade against pediatricians? My home state was once a bastion of moderate pragmatism; today, it’s a laboratory of legalized violence. A Tea Party­–controlled Legislature has turned Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s reign into an autocracy, where conservative special interest groups like the NRA are free to test out their new, often savage schemes on the populace. From guns to the death penalty to voting rights and health care, Republicans have systematically pushed through new policies that endanger or degrade all but the most wealthy and powerful Floridians. They’ve followed the money and brutalized the state, transforming it from a sunny vacation spot to a dangerous, uncivilized sump.

I left Florida before this revolution began, and I used to think I might move back one day. Not any more. A state where black kids can be legally shot down, where pediatricians cannot even encourage their patients to lock up their guns—this is no place to raise children and have a family. For a while, Florida’s combination of weird news and reactionary politics made it the laughingstock of the nation. But the laughing has stopped now. And what’s left in its wake is the dreadful realization that, in their effort to turn the state into a far-right paradise, Republicans have created a hell on earth.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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