Federal Judge Blocks Florida Law Barring Doctors From Asking About Guns

In The News
September 14, 2011

Ropes & Gray represented the Florida chapters of three national medical organizations, along with six physicians, who persuaded a federal district judge to immediately grant a preliminary injunction on Sept. 14 blocking enforcement of the new state law barring health care professionals from asking patients if they own guns and have them stored properly. These questions are a key element in the practice of preventive medicine.

The groups, along with individual doctors, had asked Judge Marcia Cooke of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, Miami Division to issue a preliminary injunction because the new law has already curtailed the First Amendment rights of physicians across the state to speak with their patients about gun safety. A preliminary injunction is an order that prevents a party from pursuing a particular course of conduct until a case has been decided. To grant a preliminary injunction, the court must find that plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of the case.

Lisa A. Cosgrove, M.D., FAAP, President of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (Florida Pediatric Society) said: “Pediatricians simply want to do what they do best: protect children. We hope that now we will be able to get back to working with parents to maintain their guns, pools and poisons to keep kids safe."

Dennis Mayeaux, M.D., Chair, Board of Directors, Florida Academy of Family Physicians said: “The impact of this law has already caused serious rifts in physician-patient relationships. Casual conversations with patients often bring other medical issues to light, and erosion of these opportunities also erodes the quality of care.  The preliminary injunction will now allow us to talk to our patients again about firearm safety.”

Stuart Himmelstein, M.D., American College of Physicians Governor for Florida, stated: "Reversing this law is essential in order to preserve the sanctity of the doctor -patient relationship by keeping the government out of the exam room. The preliminary injunction will preserve free speech between both doctors and patients as protected by the Constitution and which is necessary to obtain the highest of quality care that every citizen deserves."

Physicians and other health care professionals routinely provide their patients with information about a variety of health risks in the home and broader environment. Such preventive counseling has become a cornerstone in the practice of medicine and is recommended by numerous professional medical societies. In the course of practicing preventive medicine, health care professionals routinely ask and counsel patients about firearm safety.

The state chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American College of Physicians collectively represent more than 11,000 health care professionals in Florida. On June 24, 2011, these organizations, along with six individual physicians, filed papers asking the court to enjoin the law because it substantially curtailed their First Amendment rights to exchange information with patients about gun safety.

The lawsuit challenging the Physician Gag Law was originally filed on June 6, 2011, shortly after Governor Scott signed it into law. Prior to filing suit, the physician groups urged the Governor to veto the legislation since it infringes the First Amendment rights of health care professionals throughout Florida.

The organizations and individual physicians in the lawsuit are represented by Ropes & Gray (lead counsel), Astigarraga Davis (local counsel), and lawyers from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project. The Ropes & Gray team that worked on the matter was led by partner Douglas Hallward-Driemeier.