AMA, NRA Enter Fray Over Florida 'Gag Law' on Gun Questions

July 07, 2011

July 7, 2011 — The court battle over a new Florida law that forbids physicians from asking patients about gun ownership has pulled in 2 heavyweight organizations with opposing views on the issue.

At its annual meeting in Chicago last month, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association (AMA) instructed the organization to support litigation that Florida physicians have filed in a federal district court in Miami, Florida, to overturn what they call a gag law. Those physicians, pediatricians in particular, argue that they are professionally obliged to broach the subject of firearms so that they can counsel gun owners about safe storage practices and possibly avert accidental shootings. The law, they say, violates their First Amendment right to free speech.

A few days later, the National Rifle Association (NRA) asked the federal court's permission to intervene in the case to defend the law and the Second Amendment rights of its members against a "spurious legal attack." The organization views physician questions about gun ownership in a hostile light.

"This is not about safety, but the gun ban politics of the American Academy of Pediatrics," NRA board member and former president Marion Hammer said recently.

The NRA had been a prominent advocate of the Florida law, signed by Governor Rick Scott on June 2. The law bans making written and oral inquiries regarding firearms ownership, recording such information in a patient's chart, "unnecessarily harassing" gun owners, or turning away patients who refuse to answer gun questions. It makes an exception for questions about firearms if a clinician believes "that this information is relevant to the patient's medical care or safety, or the safety of others." However, critics of the law say this exception is vague because the criteria for relevance are not spelled out.

Plaintiffs Oppose Entry of NRA Into Case

The plaintiffs in the case consist of the Florida chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American College of Physicians, as well as 6 individual physicians. Their suit, brought against Scott and other state officials, seeks a temporary injunction against the Florida statute and, ultimately, a declaration that it violates their First Amendment right to free speech and their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process under the law.

In voting to support the Florida physicians in their lawsuit on June 20, the AMA House of Delegates went on record characterizing the Florida law as government meddling in the physician–patient relationship and a restriction on a physician's clinical judgment. AMA legal support could take the form of financial assistance, a friend-of-the-court brief, or intervention as a party in the suit, an AMA spokesperson told Medscape Medical News.

"We could enter the case on behalf of our members in Florida," he said, adding that the AMA has yet to reach a tactical decision.

Joining a lawsuit like this in midstream requires the court's approval, which is what the NRA is awaiting in its request to become a litigant. In a court filing, the plaintiffs in the federal case contended that the NRA lacks the legal grounds to intervene, and that the gun rights organization would likely raise Second Amendment arguments that are "entirely irrelevant to the First and Fourteenth Amendment issues properly before the court."

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