Florida Poised To Restrict Doctors' Right To Speak About Gun Safety

May 11, 2011 5:28 pm ET — Chris Brown

Looks like it's time to add your child's pediatrician to the ever-growing list of people the National Rifle Association (NRA) fears are advancing attacks against the 2nd Amendment. Florida Governor Rick Scott is expected to sign a law that would restrict the ability of doctors to talk to their patients about gun ownership. Doctors and public health experts have warned that the bill will increase the risk of firearms accidents. The NRA contributed to writing the law that would be the first in the nation of its type.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long counseled doctors to include questions about guns and how they are stored. Questions about guns are part of a series of questions assessing risks in the hopes of providing guidance to prevent injuries before they happen. Reached for comment by Political Correction, David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Youth Violence Prevention Center, explained:

There is a great deal of evidence that guns in the home can be dangerous to children. Doctors need to able to ask about guns just like they ask about other potential risks such as pool safety and seat belt use.  Restricting the speech of doctors is clearly a dangerous precedent.

Studies show parents often think--incorrectly--that their children don't know a gun is in the home, or where it is stored, and have never played with it.  In fact, like Christmas presents, children usually know, and boys are especially curious and often play with the gun without parental knowledge.  Parents don't always appreciate the risks, which is one reason doctors ask these questions

The chilling effect on doctors' free speech rights and the impact on public safety has left many doctors questioning the morality of the Florida law. Florida doctor Louis St. Petery has suggested that, despite alterations to the law to allow doctors some leeway, the Florida law will lead pediatricians to "think twice about asking about firearms and discussing firearms safety."

Reached for comment by Political Correction, Matt Miller, physician and associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, suggested doctors will have to choose between the Florida law and their "moral obligation" as doctors.

Talking to patients about safety issues is the professional and moral obligation of doctors, especially pediatricians, whose patients need to be protected from the two leading causes of death among is most likely to kill and injure them: motor vehicles and guns. After all, children and adolescents are more likely to die from preventable firearm injuries (including suicide, unintentional firearm injuries, and homicide) than from anything other than motor vehicle injuries.

It is immoral and completely political for the NRA to intimidate physicians from fulfilling their Hippocratic obligation to protect their patients. Just as doctors must talk to their patients (and to the parents of their patients when their patient is a minor) about seat belts use, they must also talk to their patients about the risks of a gun in the home, especially when kept unlocked and loaded. The legislature must also be called to task for abetting this unhealthy interference with the doctor-patient relationship --at the cost of many lives, especially among those who don't have a voice themselves, our nations children.

Similar legislation is being considered in other state legislatures including North Carolina and Alabama. Given the NRA's ongoing need to find new enemies, expect them to keep pushing for similar restrictions.