AAFP, Others Petition Full Appeals Court to Review Florida Gun Law

Statute Undermines Patient-Physician Relationship, Say Groups

September 03, 2014 02:05 pm News Staff
[Gavel on desk in foreground and US Capitol steps in background]

The AAFP is among several medical organizations that have asked a federal appeals court to reconsider a controversial Florida law that restricts physicians from asking and counseling patients about firearms in the home.

After a U.S. district court judge in Florida overturned the law as infringing on free speech, a panel of three judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld it in a 2-1 vote(media.ca11.uscourts.gov) in July. Last week, the AAFP joined an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief(1 MB PDF) asking the full appeals court to hear the case.

Known as the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, the law restricts physicians from asking patients about the presence of guns in the home and prevents them from making notes about the issue in patient records. Physicians who violate the law are subject to fines and a possible suspension of their license. Although an exception in the law allows for questions to be asked if they are considered relevant to the patient's safety, opponents argue that provision is too vague.

Story highlights
  • The AAFP and other medical organizations have petitioned a U.S. appeals court to reconsider a Florida law that restricts physicians from asking and counseling patients about guns in the home.
  • The law, known as the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, has faced a long course of legal challenges since it was enacted in 2011.
  • In addition to challenging the Florida law, the AAFP and other medical groups have gone on record as opposing any statute that interferes with the patient-physician relationship.

The AAFP and other medical organizations have strenuously objected to the law as undermining the patient-physician relationship. Specifically, they say, it restricts physicians' right to free speech and forces them to abandon their ethical obligations to patients. Counseling patients about gun safety is a routine part of advice about other health and safety issues such as seat belt use, household chemicals, tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

"If this precedent is upheld, it will denigrate the practice of medicine, and it will lead to disrespect for the law," the brief reads.

"There is no disagreement within the medical community that providing information about firearm safety is a valid aspect of preventive care and thus beneficial to public health."

Ever since Florida legislators enacted the law in 2011, it has faced legal challenges. A federal district court in Miami declared the law unconstitutional in 2012 and issued an injunction, preventing its implementation. The lower court's action remains in effect until the appeals process is complete.

When Florida officials appealed the district judge's injunction, the AAFP and other organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief that supported overturning the law. In addition, the AAFP and other medical organizations called for an end to legislation that interferes with the practice of medicine in an Oct. 18 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Whether to grant the current petition for rehearing is, of course, at the court's discretion, and there is no guarantee that the full appeals court will agree to hear the case. AAFP News will continue to monitor the issue.