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A Times Editorial

Doctor gag law indefensible

Florida's new law punishing doctors for questioning their patients about firearms is a prime example of the state's powerful gun lobby overstepping its bounds. The law, nicknamed "Docs vs. Glocks," infringes upon the free speech rights of doctors and patients, and it interferes with the doctor-patient relationship. That didn't stop lawmakers beholden to the National Rifle Association from passing the statute in the last legislative session, or Gov. Rick Scott from signing it into law. But now a federal judge in Miami has blocked the law, and it should be clear to everyone that what is at issue is not gun rights but the suspension of common sense.

The Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, a novel reach into doctors' offices around Florida, was challenged by physician and gun control groups on First Amendment grounds. The suit targets provisions of the new law that open physicians to disciplinary action if they ask their patients about gun ownership without it being relevant to safety, or if they record that information into a database. The law also prohibits physicians from discriminating or harassing a patient because of firearm ownership.

As originally filed by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, doctors could be punished for up to five years in prison and a $5 million fine. Those pernicious elements were removed, and the law was revised to no longer prohibit doctors from inquiring about guns in all cases. But as U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke pointed out in granting a preliminary injunction, the law provides for disciplinary action for inappropriately asking about guns in the home, which makes it an infringement on free speech.

"The law directly targets protected expression by restricting it," she wrote.

The destructiveness of this law is evinced by the bill's final legislative analysis, which said the statute's intent is to respond to policies like the American Medical Association's suggestion that its members inquire about guns "as a part of childproofing the home and to educate patients to the dangers of firearms to children."

Sensible preventive medicine. That was the menace the Florida Legislature banished from the state.

There is no viable way to defend this law in court. The state tried to point to examples of gun-owning patients being "harassed" by doctors. But, as Cooke noted, the state "failed to provide any specific evidence" that such problems are widespread.

Most absurdly, the state claimed that the statute protects the Second Amendment right to keep arms. Cooke deftly cast that argument aside, saying the Second Amendment protects the right to physically retain or have custody of weapons, not privacy for gun owners.

The state has no valid arguments defending the constitutionality of the doctor gag law. An appeal of Cooke's ruling will be a waste of taxpayer money and a wrongheaded attempt to salvage a backward law.

Doctor gag law indefensible 09/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 6:23pm]
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