In 2011, the Florida legislature passed H.B. 155, a NRA-sponsored bill that drastically limited the freedom of doctors to talk to their patients about the risks of guns in the home. The law subjected health care providers to fines and even loss of their license if they discuss gun safety or record information in a patient's chart about gun ownership.
The law was heavily criticized by pediatricians and medical organizations, who aptly recognize that guns in the home pose a safety hazard for children. Studies have shown that one-third of U.S. homes with children younger than 18 have a gun, and more than 40 percent of these households store their guns unlocked. According to one study, children aged 5 to 14 years in the United States are 11 times more likely to be killed accidentally with a gun than similarly aged children in other developed countries. Because of these well-documented risks, pediatricians advise parents to keep guns away from children, secured with gun locks, and stored separately from ammunition.
Immediately after the law took effect, the Brady Center, in conjunction with Ropes & Gray and other law firm partners, filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of individual physicians and medical associations against the state of Florida to block enforcement of the gag rule and have it struck down. The lawsuit argued that the Florida gag rule law violated basic First Amendment rights, both of doctors to share information with their patients and of patients to receive that information. The suit also argues that the vague and undefined descriptions of what kind of conduct was prohibited by the law violated the physician's' right to due process.
Brady won at the trial court level, first with a preliminary injunction and then a permanent bar on enforcing this unconstitutional law. But Florida appealed. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court decision, finding that the Act was a “legitimate regulation of professional conduct.” In February 2016, the 11th Circuit en banc (meaning a larger group of judges) vacated the earlier panel decision and decided to reconsider the case.
On February 16, 2017, the 11th Circuit en banc struck down this Florida law as unconstitutional. The court held that the law unconstitutionally infringed on doctors' rights to ask about, and counsel their patients on, guns in the home. This ruling is a critical victory for free speech and the fight for public health and safety. Encouraging truthful information and discussions about gun safety is a priority for Brady, and we are very pleased that doctors in Florida have regained their rights to have those conversations with their patients.
Working with the Brady Center as lead counsel for the plaintiffs was Douglas H. Hallward-Driemeier of Ropes & Gray LLP in Washington, D.C. Plaintiffs were also represented by Edward M. Mullins and Hal M. Lucas of Astigarraga Davis Mullins & Grossman, P.A. in Miami, Florida.