Kids and Guns: Why Doctors Have a Right to Know

A federal judge overturns a Florida law stating that doctors can't ask parents about guns in their household -- a law that critics said was a sign of gun-rights protections gone too far

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Clarification Appended: Sept. 20, 2011

A federal court has blocked a new Florida law that limited the ability of doctors to ask patients if they had guns in the home. Judge Monica Cooke, a Republican appointee, rightly said that the law interfered with both doctors’ right to free speech and patients’ right to receive information.

The ruling, which came down last week, struck an important blow for freedom of expression. But it did something more: it dealt a rare setback to a gun-rights lobby that is increasingly using its considerable political power to support policies that have little to do with the right to bear arms and needlessly put innocent people at risk.

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Residents of Florida have nearly unrestricted freedom to bear arms. They can have them at home, and they can carry them in public provided they conceal them (except in a few places, such as federal buildings or polling places) or show them only briefly in a non-threatening manner.

Because the government does so little to interfere with gun ownership, gun-rights proponents have had to look hard for things to complain about. Florida’s Firearm Owners’ Privacy Law, the statute that was blocked last week, was signed into law in June after an incident in which a doctor told the mother of a patient that she would have to find a new pediatrician if she would not say whether she had guns in her home.

The law is not about preventing the government from interfering with people’s right to own and use guns. It is about private doctors asking their patients a question for which they have good medical reasons. Pediatricians routinely inquire about health-and-safety risks to their young patients. That can include whether a child wears a bicycle helmet, whether there are household chemicals or alcohol within reach — and whether there are firearms in the home. More than 3,000 children and teens were killed by guns, and more than 20,000 injured, in recent years, and the rate of child deaths, injuries and suicides is far higher in homes where guns are present.

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Supporters of the Florida law argued it was necessary to protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms — but it isn’t. As judge Cooke has noted, a doctor who asks about guns in the home is in no way interfering “with the patient’s right to continue to own, possess or use firearms.”

The fact is, in Florida and nationwide, the basic right to have a gun for self-defense is more secure than it has been in decades. Gun-rights advocates won a huge victory in 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment prohibits most restrictions on the right to own a gun for self-protection.

With that right now well entrenched, however, the gun lobby has increasingly been fighting for principles that elevate gun rights to troubling extremes.

When Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January, an attack in which six people were killed and 13 seriously injured, it called attention to high-capacity clips, which allow a gunman with a single handgun to shoot many people very quickly. Using a high-capacity clip, Giffords’ assailant fired 31 bullets in rapid succession. Similar clips were used in the Columbine High School shootings, the Virginia Tech attacks and the recent massacre of 68 people at a Norwegian youth camp.

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Under the 1994 federal assault-weapons ban, it was illegal to sell high-capacity clips, but that law lapsed in 2004. A new bill introduced by New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy — whose husband was murdered by a crazed gunman on the Long Island Rail Road in 1993 — would reinstate the high-capacity-clips ban. But the gun lobby is bitterly opposed — and the bill appears to be going nowhere.

Gag rules for doctors and protection for high-capacity clips are not the only troubling positions the gun lobby has staked out. Gun-rights advocates steadfastly defend the so-called gun-show loophole, which allows people to buy firearms at gun shows without the federal background checks that are required for purchases in stores. As a result of the loophole, criminals and terrorists have a place they can go to buy weapons, no questions asked.

A bill introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year would have blocked gun purchases by people on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. It should have passed unanimously: Really, who wants to see suspected terrorists loading up on assault weapons? But the gun lobby argued vociferously that the bill could infringe on the Second Amendment rights of anyone put on the list by mistake. In May, the bill died in committee.

It is time for a little more common sense. Gun-rights supporters can protect people’s ability to use guns for self-protection without fighting for the right to use clips that can kill 31 people at a pop. Or helping terrorists to buy guns. Or telling pediatricians they can’t try to keep their young patients away from a major cause of accidental death.

The original version of this article stated that Florida residents can brandish their guns openly. In fact, while residents can briefly show their weapons in public in a non-threatening manner, most of the time they must conceal their firearms when they carry them in public.