NRA Files Brief Accusing Medical Society of Anti-Gun Agenda

October 18, 2012

The National Rifle Association (NRA) says that an overturned Florida law that prohibited pediatricians from asking patients about gun ownership is needed because the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has an anti-gun agenda.

The NRA leveled that charge — which the AAP repudiates — earlier this month in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in a federal appeals court in Atlanta, Georgia. That court is reviewing the decision by a federal district judge in Miami earlier this year that struck down the Florida law as a violation of physicians' free speech rights.

Florida lawmakers had enacted the NRA-supported ban to prevent any physician from supposedly harassing and discriminating against gun owners. Sparking the law was an incident in which a pediatrician told a patient's mother to find a new clinician after she refused to answer a question about firearms in her home.

Several Florida physicians and state chapters of the AAP and 2 other medical societies challenged the law in federal court, claiming it had a chilling effect on clinicians' attempts to educate patients — and especially parents of young children — about safe gun storage in the home. The goal of such education was to prevent incidents in which, for example, a 4-year-old or a depressed teenager discovers a loaded pistol in his or her parents' bedroom closet and pulls the trigger. Such advice, the physicians said, was on par with reminders to buckle children in car seatbelts.

The Florida law allowed physicians to inquire about gun ownership if they believed it was relevant to the medical care or safety of the patient or someone else. However, US District Judge Marcia Cooke said that this loophole, along with other provisions, was too vague to give physicians any assurance they would not be accused of violating the law and brought before the state medical board for discipline.

Florida state officials appealed the judicial smack-down to the appellate court in Atlanta. Although the NRA was not a party in the case, it got in its 2 cents with the friend-of-the-court brief.

To bolster its contention that the Florida case centers on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, the NRA cited what it considered proof of the AAP's "non-medical agenda" against guns. One piece of evidence was an AAP position paper on firearm-related injuries published in 2000 and reaffirmed in 2004 that advocated banning handguns and semiautomatic assault weapons. The NRA also cited friend-of-the-court briefs filed by the AAP in 2 Supreme Court cases on handgun bans, saying that the society "was dedicated to preventing violence and injury by removing handguns from homes and communities across the country."

"Against this backdrop, the Florida legislature was plainly justified in passing all the challenged provisions of the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act," the NRA stated. The law was a reasonable regulation of medical practice because "it exhorts doctors to stick to practicing medicine...rather than pushing their own political agendas, and it protects patients from doctors who refuse to do so."

New AAP Position Paper Drops Call for Handgun Ban

At a press conference yesterday that unveiled the academy's latest position paper on firearm-related injuries, AAP leaders said the NRA had mischaracterized the group's position.

"We are not anti-gun, but we sure are pro-kid," said M. Denise Dowd, MD, MPH, a lead author of the new position paper, published online today in the AAP journal Pediatrics.

"Many of us are gun owners," added O. Marion Burton, MD, the immediate past-president of the AAP. "We do not have a stance against guns."

Dr. Burton said the AAP has long held that the safest home for children is one without guns. However, this belief does not equal an anti-gun agenda, he said.

"The safest means of protecting a child from auto accidents is to not have a car," Dr. Burton said, suggesting in so many words that the academy would never advocate banning cars. Rather, the academy was advocating reasonable prudence.

"If there are guns in the home," said Dr. Burton, "scientific evidence has shown that the risk of injury or death is greatly reduced if they are stored unloaded and locked [up], along with ammunition locked [up] in a separate place."

Dr. Dowd said that instructing parents about proper gun storage was akin to discussing other potential hazards such as backyard trampolines and swimming pools. "It's not about pointing a finger at anyone, but [saying], 'let's talk about a safe home for your child,' " she said.

Both Dr. Dowd and Dr. Burton said the release of the AAP's new position paper on firearm-related injuries had nothing to do with the appellate court case on the Florida gag law. Rather, academy position papers expire after 5 years unless they are reaffirmed or updated, and the paper from 2000 needed updating because there was more scientific evidence to support the AAP's various recommendations on preventing gun-related injuries.

The position paper still advocates a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons but drops the call for a handgun ban that appeared in the 2000 version. Instead, it pushes for the "strongest possible regulations of handguns for civilian use."

In yesterday's news conference, Dr. Burton said the academy was bowing to 2 recent Supreme Court decisions that overturned outright bans on such weapons in Chicago, Illinois, and Washington, DC.

"The Supreme Court has come down pretty firmly on the fact that US citizens have a right to bear arms, and that includes handguns," said Dr. Burton. "The best we can do is to try to promote the safety of these items. We're trying to be in keeping with...the law of the land."

Physician Who Packs Handgun Opposes Florida Law

One of the physicians who contested the Florida gag law in federal court told Medscape Medical News that his case was not part of an anti-gun crusade.

"We as plaintiffs do not challenge Second Amendment rights," said Bernd Wollschlaeger, MD, a family physician in Miami. "The lawsuit is strictly about First Amendment [free speech] rights."

The NRA, Dr. Wollschlaeger said, was "desperately trying to mingle" the 2 constitutional issues.

Dr. Wollschlaeger said he exercises his Second Amendment rights by carrying a concealed handgun for self-defense under a state permit. He learned to handle shotguns and rifles as a young man when he shot with his father, who was a hunter.

Questions and counseling about guns in the home were merely part of an overall effort to make a child's environment safer, he said. "If you exercise your Second Amendment rights, you should know how to exercise them safely."