Florida’s ‘watered down’ law curbing firearms inquiries OK with FOMA
Pitting the First Amendment against the Second Amendment and children’s safety against the right to privacy, a controversial new Florida law limiting the ability of physicians to ask patients about gun ownership has sparked a lawsuit by three medical specialty societies. But the Florida Osteopathic Medical Association (FOMA) is among the physician organizations that view the legislation as a palatable compromise from the original, more punitive bill.
Primary care physicians, especially pediatricians, sometimes ask patients or patients’ parents about firearms in the home while warning of their hazards to children and adolescents. However, this year five states have considered legislation backed by the National Rifle Association to outlaw or restrict those queries. Florida is the first state to pass such a law.
Signed into law on June 2, the Privacy of Firearm Owners Act is a “very, very, very watered down” piece of legislation, FOMA Executive Director Stephen R. Winn explained to the AOA Bureau of State Government Affairs, which met in Chicago on July 14. The original draft of the bill would have made firearms inquiries punishable as a third-degree felony and imposed fines of up to $5 million on physicians.
“All criminal penalties have been removed, and all fines have been removed,” said Nikhil Mehta, the AOA’s legislative consultant, who gave a presentation on the law during the bureau meeting. But physicians who violate the law may be reprimanded by the Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine or the Florida Board of Medicine if patient complaints are deemed justified.
The law still restricts physicians from making verbal or written inquiries about gun ownership and from discriminating against patients based on gun ownership. But the final draft of the legislation also contains a broad exception that significantly weakens those restrictions: The law allows questioning about firearms if it is related to the medical care or safety of the patient or others.
“Physicians can continue to ask questions about firearms if they document that the questions are necessary for the safety and welfare of patients,” Winn said, noting that little has changed with the passage of this law. Winn pointed out that FOMA and the Florida Medical Association (FMA) worked to persuade the Florida Legislature to amend the bill.
“The NRA was not happy with the compromise we achieved working behind the scenes, but neither were all physician groups.”
In fact, FOMA and the FMA requested that the AOA and the American Medical Association not take positions on the firearms privacy legislation because their involvement might have jeopardized the negotiations, Winn explained. He noted the importance of working with the profession’s allies in the Florida Legislature. “The legislative process, as you know, is made up of compromises,” Winn stressed.
But the principles involved are too important to accept compromise, argue the Florida chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, which contend that that the law is vague, violates physicians’ free speech rights and undermines the physician-patient relationship. Acting on behalf of these organizations, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence filed a lawsuit challenging the law.
Although the details of the incident are disputed, the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner reported in July 2010 that a 26-year-old mother became upset when a pediatrician asked her if she owned a gun. When she refused to answer the question, the physician allegedly told her that she had 30 days to find another pediatrician. This widely disseminated article spurred gun lobbyists into action and galvanized state Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Republican, to introduce the firearms privacy bill in the Florida House.
“No one knows what really happened, but the NRA used the incident to flex its muscles,” said Paul D. Seltzer, DO, a former FOMA president who is now the association’s legislative chairman. “The NRA was not happy with the compromise we achieved working behind the scenes, but neither were all physician groups.”