Federal Judge Permanently Blocks State Law Barring Doctors From Asking About Guns

July 2, 2012

On July 2 a federal district court entered a final judgment permanently blocking enforcement of Florida’s 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 court found that the law curtailed the First Amendment rights of physicians across the state to speak with their patients about gun 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.

On September 14, 2011, Judge Marcia Cooke of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, Miami Division granted a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law. The final judgment entered on July 2, 2012, by Judge Cooke makes her prior preliminary injunction a permanent injunction.

Mobeen Rathore, M.D., CPE, FAAP, president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (Florida Pediatric Society) said: “We thank the Court for recognizing that pediatricians need to maintain an open dialogue with our patients and work with parents in order to keep children safe."

Stuart Himmelstein, M.D., American College of Physicians, Immediate Past Governor for Florida, stated: “This is a great result for safety and quality of medical care in Florida. The injunction preserves 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."

Dennis Mayeaux, M.D., Past President, Florida Academy of Family Physicians commented: “Talking with our patients about firearm safety is an important step in helping to maintain a home environment that is not dangerous. By blocking this law the Court has ensured that health care professionals can continue to speak freely with our patients and provide them with the best possible care.”

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 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. The Astigarraga Davis team was led by Ed Mullins.