Gunshot wounds account for one in 25 admissions to pediatric trauma centers in the U.S., which is why Florida pediatricians recoiled when a precedent-setting law went into effect in June, making the state the first in the country to prohibit doctors from asking their patients about gun safety in the home.
In August, the Florida chapters of three professional physicians’ organizations, along with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, sued on the grounds that the law — a “physician gag law,” the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called it — violated doctors’ freedom of speech. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Miami agreed and temporarily blocked the law. It seems likely that the decision will become permanent.
“Despite the State’s insistence that the right to ‘keep arms’ is the primary constitutional right at issue in this litigation, a plain reading of the statute reveals that this law in no way affects such rights,” wrote U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. “A practitioner who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect nor interfere with the patient’s right to continue to own, possess, or use firearms.”
Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature, with support from Gov. Rick Scott, had argued that it was a violation of privacy for pediatricians to ask parents if they kept guns in their home. Noting that the law relied on anecdotal evidence and not research or statistics, Judge Cooke wrote in the ruling [PDF] that “information regarding firearm ownership is not sacrosanct.”
“The law was crazy,” says Louis St. Petery, a pediatric cardiologist in Tallahassee and executive vice president of the Florida Pediatric Society. “The NRA [National Rifle Association] argued that we were out to rid the state of firearms, but that’s a distortion. Our issues as pediatricians are all about safety.”
Which is why pediatricians have to be so nosy. They ask all sorts of personal questions, delving into family diets and discipline and urging caution around swimming pools and street crossings. They remind parents to make their kids wear helmets when biking and stay in booster seats even when big kids complain they’re too babyish. They also ask whether parents keep guns at home and whether they’re stored safely — with the ammunition and the firearm kept separately in locked cabinets, the key tucked away from children.
St. Petery and his wife, who is also a pediatrician, kept a gun in their own home while raising three children. “We are not out to interfere with people’s Second Amendment rights,” says St. Petery, noting that about 60% of Florida residents are gun-owners. “We own a gun ourselves.”
But knowing what can happen when parents fail to keep guns away from children, they are adamant about ensuring safety. Back in the 1970s, soon after the couple began practicing in Tallahassee, they attended a funeral for a child, a patient who was shot and killed by a sibling. “We were totally devastated and have never forgotten it,” says St. Petery, who said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 200,000 homes in Florida have improperly stored weapons. “It’s one of the things that made us so passionate about this issue.”
Still, proponents of the Florida law maintain that gun-talk is not a pediatrician’s job. ”We take our children to pediatricians for medical care — not moral judgment, not privacy intrusions,” NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer told NPR in May.
Asking whether guns are locked away hardly strikes me as an invasion of privacy. Rather, it seems almost negligent for pediatricians not to ask, considering that eight U.S. children die of gunshot wounds each day. If a gun owner gets huffy, so be it; those who safely stow their firearms would have no reason to bridle.
Inquiring about guns is “a cornerstone of pediatric care,” according to a statement from O. Marion Burton, president of the AAP, one of the physician groups involved in the lawsuit.
“Today’s court victory ensures that important conversations about firearm safety can continue to take place between doctors and patients,” says Burton. “Parents often do not realize how easily a child can access a gun that is not locked, and we too often hear about the tragic consequences.”
The law was originally triggered by one mother’s experience being questioned by a doctor about guns in her home. When she refused to answer, the physician gave her 30 days to find a new pediatrician. Florida lawmakers were so perturbed by the woman’s situation, along with other similar incidents that came to light, that they initially recommended a five-year prison sentence and $5 million fine for offending doctors. They eventually settled on potential loss of a doctor’s medical license and up to a $10,000 fine, while allowing for exceptional situations that could warrant physician questioning, such as a suicidal teen.
Sending doctors to the slammer for inquiring about a child’s safety? That apparently seemed extreme even to a Republican-appointed judge. With Wednesday’s ruling, pediatricians once again will face no restrictions when it comes to asking tough questions to keep kids safe.