In 2014, more than 2,500 children and teens died from gunshot wounds. Every day, by the time that most of us have commuted to work, spent an average day at the office, and returned home, three children under the age of 18 have been killed by gunfire. Gun violence disproportionately affects children. They are uniquely vulnerable to becoming the victim of a bullet’s trajectory. This is why it is the policy of many professional healthcare organizations—including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Medical Association—to recommend that doctors routinely ask families with children about gun ownership.
But if you’re a doctor in Florida, asking these questions can result in a formal censure or penalty fines, and can even deprive you of your livelihood by revoking your medical license. That’s because in 2011 the Florida legislature passed the “Privacy of Firearm Owners Act,” (FOPA) an NRA-sponsored bill that drastically limits the freedom of medical professionals to talk to and advise their patients about the risks of firearms in the home. And this law doesn’t just hurt doctors—it also prevents thousands of Floridians from receiving individualized advice and counseling that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
In 2011, the Brady Center and the law firm of Ropes & Gray LLP brought suit to strike down the law on behalf of a group of individual physicians and Florida chapters of major medical organizations, arguing that the law violated the First Amendment rights of both the physicians and their patients to discuss the dangers and risks inherent to firearm ownership. A federal judge with the Southern District of Florida held that the law was unconstitutional, but a divided three-judge panel at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in July 2014, finding that the Act was a “legitimate regulation of professional conduct” that “codifies that good medical care does not require inquiry or record-keeping regarding firearms when unnecessary to a patient’s care.” Fortunately, the entire 11th Circuit has accepted to rehear the case, en banc, on June 21.
An excellent brief written by Arnold & Porter LLP on behalf of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), filed recently before the full 11th Circuit, demonstrates what is truly at stake by limiting doctor’s speech on this critical issue. As the leading organization for professionals who serve children and families affected by child maltreatment, abuse, and neglect, APSAC argued that “FOPA … allow[s] some gun owners to avoid a few unwelcome questions from their doctors at the cost of placing the lives of Florida’s children in danger.” They point to a plethora of statistics that drive this point home: 80% of unintentional shooting deaths of kids happen in the home or vehicle that belongs to the victim’s family, or in the home of a relative or friend. Even more disturbing, nearly 40% of parents mistakenly believed their children didn’t know where their gun was stored, and 22% falsely believed that their child hadn’t handled a household gun, when in fact the opposite is more likely to be true.
These facts prove two things: our children are being injured and killed by guns at alarming rates, and we can do more to prevent this outcome. But a crucial step in the prevention of accidental shootings is education, which family doctors are uniquely positioned to offer, given their knowledge of the medical costs of gun violence and their personal insight into a specific child or family’s history. Education works, too. In one study, 64% of participants who received verbal counseling by a doctor regarding firearm storage safety improved their gun safety practices by the end of the study period.
This law prevents doctors and other medical professionals from providing the top-notch care that is needed to protect children and families from the lethal risks of guns in the home. “Physician speech regarding firearms is critical to the health and wellbeing of many patients,” APSAC argues. The child welfare community knows it, doctors and nurses know it, and now it’s time for the government to recognize it.