In 2011 the Florida legislature passed a law to protect the state’s gun owners from having to divulge any information about gun ownership during the course of a medical exam. The law, which became known as ‘Docs Versus Glocks,’ soon became one of the main poster children of the pro-gun, anti-gun argument that really heated up after the carnage at Sandy Hook. On one side stood the NRA, which touted the law as a defense of 2nd Amendment rights; on the other side was Brady and the medical community which viewed the law as interfering with the doctor’s right to know. The law was struck down in 2012 by a Federal District Judge and was immediately appealed by the Gunshine State to the 11th Circuit which held a hearing in July, 2013. Everyone’s expecting a ruling soon so I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss the case before all the real experts get into the act.
The law doesn’t completely deny physicians the ability to talk to patients about guns. What the law actually says is that a physician “shall refrain” from inquiring about firearm ownership unless the practitioner “in good faith believes that this information is relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others….” Yet despite this caveat, the medical community attacked the law, declaring that its language would have a chilling effect on the ability of physicians to talk to their patients about all kinds of safety and health issues, not just about guns. The District Court sided with the docs, calling the law a “legislative illusion” because there was no connection between questions asked about gun ownership and protecting the 2nd Amendment right to own guns.
While arguments over gun control at the federal level get all the headlines, it’s what happens at the state and local levels that really determines whether or not gun owners can get or keep their guns. The Sullivan Law has been in existence since 1908, it’s almost impossible to own or carry a gun in New York City and 2nd Amendment ‘rights’ can go fly a kite. In total dollars the NRA gives out less than half a million to state-level candidates and parties, but this is 30 times more than gun control groups give to the same races. And in a state-level race where 200 or less votes can make the difference, getting your hands on an NRA phone list may carry the day. I’m not sure that the Florida legislators who voted for the gun bill knew or even cared what the law said. But they didn’t want to be ‘scored’ by the NRA in the next election because they voted the wrong way. Before the Tea Party showed up it really didn’t matter whether a Republican toed the line on gun issues because the NRA wasn’t about to support any Blue candidates anyway. But now that a growing number of Republican office-holders face primary challenges from the Right, everyone on the Red side of the aisle is listening to the NRA.
As for doctors, it took them nearly a century after 1850 to become a self-regulating profession whose guidelines for practice and behavior were largely established and maintained by themselves. And even though their professional autonomy has of late come into conflict with the market imperatives of insurors and other for-profit enterprises, they still retain sovereignty over defining how to deliver their services at the point that such services matter most, namely, in consultations with patients. The fact that the Florida legislature didn’t bother to ask their own state Health Department for a recommendation on physicians talking to patients about guns tells me that the motive behind the law had nothing to do with concerns about the delivery of health care at all. For that matter, it wasn’t that the law threatened doctors who talked to their patients about guns per se, it was the fact that any law which infringes on the professional autonomy of physicians to communicate with their patients threatens the validity of the Hippocratic Oath.
Let’s hope that the 11th Circuit understands what this argument is really all about.