Florida's crazy new law preventing doctors from asking patients about their guns. 

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 8 2011 6:51 PM

Shooting Pains

Florida's crazy new law preventing doctors from asking patients about their guns. 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Click image to expand.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill this month making Florida the first state in which it's illegal for any physician to "ask questions concerning the ownership of a firearm" or "harass … a patient about firearm ownership during an examination." The stated purpose of this law is to protect patient "privacy." Which raises a very important legal and constitutional question: Huh?

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Patient privacy is already protected by law, and the right to bear arms is also already protected by law. So the new bill mainly just protects patients from feeling bad or judged at their doctor's office. Now if Florida doctors make their patients feel bad about their guns—or if patients only think their doctors are trying to make them feel bad about their guns—the doctors are on the hook for disciplinary proceedings, possible revocation of their medical license, and administrative fines up to $10,000 per count.

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The scuffle over "docs vs. Glocks" seems to have started when a pediatrician in Ocala asked the mother of a young child whether she kept guns in the home. She refused to answer because, as she put it, "whether I have a gun has nothing to do with the health of my child." When the doctor told her to find another pediatrician, the women threatened to call a lawyer. Consider: According to a suit filed this week by the Brady Center, 65 children and teenagers are shot every day in America, and eight of them die; one-third of American homes with children under 18 have a firearms in them; and more than 40 percent of those households store their guns unlocked and a quarter of those homes store them loaded. What was it that mother said again? Oh, right, guns have nothing to do with the health of our children.

If the possibility of accidental death, grievous injury, or suicide has nothing to do with children's health, one has to wonder what does. Surely it involves broccoli.

Pediatricians are trained—indeed, they are explicitly advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics—to inquire about the presence of open containers of bleach, swimming pools, balloons, and toilet locks in the homes of their patients. It's part of their job to educate parents about potentially lethal dangers around the home. (Pediatricians have also been known to ask about menstruation, painful sex after childbirth, birth control, and the travails of potty training, all in the interest of patient well-being, by the way). So one might wonder why an inquiry about guns is the place to draw the line in the sand, the ultimate threat to personal privacy. For an answer to that question, you need to depart the world of what actually is for a ramble through the rocky shoals of what could be. What could be if you were, say, Paul Revere and the British were coming to, um, take your personal guns away and stuff.

That's right. The NRA-sponsored law, which in its original incarnation attempted to punish doctors with prison time or fines up to $5 million for merely asking a patient about gun ownership, is predicated on the lie that keeps on giving: that President Obama is coming for yer guns.

It hardly bears mentioning that there is no evidence that Obama is coming for your guns. There is also no evidence that Obama's new health care law is—as this law's sponsor, Rep. Jason Brodeur has claimed—a thinly veiled effort to take away your guns or your insurance because you have a gun. As Brodeur explained his concerns to the Fort Myers News-Press: "What we don't want to do is have law-abiding firearm owners worried that the information is going to be recorded and then sent to their insurance company. If the overreaching federal government actually takes over health care, they're worried that Washington, D.C., is going to know whether or not they own a gun and so this is really just a privacy protection."

As PolitiFact Florida explains, however, the new health care law explicitly cannot be used to collect gun data or to raise insurance premiums of gun owners. There is no national firearms registry. Your doctor's notes about you are, and remain, confidential. So the only "privacy" issue here has nothing whatever to do with potential government incursions on your rights. It's all about gun owners' assertions that their gun ownership and storage habits are "private."

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