Judge Blocks NRA's Attempt To Prevent Doctors From Asking About Guns

September 15, 2011 11:35 am ET — Chris Brown

When the National Rifle Association (NRA) successfully pushed a bill through the Florida legislature that would prohibit pediatricians and other doctors from asking patients about gun ownership and safety, critics charged that the legislation violated the doctors' free speech rights. According to a federal judge who just ruled on the case, those critics were right.

Pediatricians have long asked questions about guns in the home and particularly how those guns were stored. In typically extremist fashion, NRA board member and chief Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer pushed through legislation that prohibited a doctor's right to ask questions about guns.

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke, an appointee of George W. Bush, blocked enforcement of the Florida saying it violated the First Amendment. As reported by the Associated Press:

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked enforcement of a first-in-the-nation law that restricted what Florida physicians can say about guns to their patients, ruling the law violates the U.S. Constitution's free speech guarantees and does not trample gun rights.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke said it was important to emphasize "the free flow of truthful, non-misleading information within the doctor-patient relationship."

"This case concerns one of our Constitution's most precious rights — the freedom of speech," said Cooke, appointed to the bench by Republican President George W. Bush. "A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect or interfere with the patient's right to continue to own, possess or use firearms."

Public health experts have been sounding the alarm about the dangerous effect of this bill since it was first introduced. In May, Political Correction talked to David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and the Youth Violence Prevention Center, who told us why doctors ask about gun safety:

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.

Similar bills are being considered by state legislatures in North Carolina and Alabama. Maybe yesterday's ruling will encourage politicians in those states to let doctors make decisions about appropriate medical advice instead of asking gun lobbyists if it's OK to let doctors do their jobs.