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AAP Applauds Ruling to Uphold a Physician’s Right to Counsel on Firearm Safety

Ruling by Appellate Court means physicians can counsel parents about firearm safety without fear of sanctions and loss of license

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) welcomes today's decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower court ruling against Florida's "physician gag law," which would have stopped physicians from counseling families on how to keep children safe around firearms.

The ruling means important conversations may continue unfettered between physicians and families about protecting children from unintentional injury and death, and it protects the physician's First Amendment right to counsel patients.

The court upheld the June 2012 decision of U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke of the Southern District of Florida-Miami, who issued a ruling permanently enjoining the 2011 Florida law restricting physician speech on firearms counseling from going into effect. 

"We are delighted that the constitution has been defended, particularly when it comes to the First Amendment.," said Fernando Stein, MD, FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Pediatricians routinely counsel families about firearm safety just as they offer guidance on seat belt use, helmets and parental tobacco use to reduce the risk of injury to children where they live and play. These are all topics that families should feel very comfortable talking about with their pediatrician."

The law would have prohibited a simple conversation in the physician's office that can save lives. Research has shown that when physicians offer guidance on gun locks and safe storage, appropriate to a child's specific age and development, it is more likely that families will take those necessary steps.

"We are pleased with the 11th Circuit's common-sense decision, which allows physicians the right to counsel families on firearms ownership and storage," said Madeline Joseph, MD, FACEP, FAAP, president of the Florida chapter of the AAP. "This ruling will allow physicians to offer sound medical advice to families without fear of state interference or penalties."

The Florida Privacy of Firearm Owners Act, which was signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott in June 2011, violates the free speech rights of doctors and patients. It bans physicians from asking their patients routine questions and having a discussion about firearm safety and subjects physicians accused of violating the statute to harsh penalties usually reserved for egregious professional misconduct. 

Soon after passage, the law was challenged in court by the Florida chapters of the AAP, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American College of Physicians, as well as by six individual physicians. The lawsuit, Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida, argued physicians' First Amendment right to free speech and patients' First Amendment right to hear the physician's speech were violated. A U.S. District Court judge agreed with the physicians' lawsuit and issued a permanent injunction, which was appealed by the state of Florida.

Other medical organizations have also challenged the law. In November 2012, an amicus brief supporting the district court ruling to enjoin the law was signed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American College of Surgeons, the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the American Psychiatric Association.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case in July of 2013. Since the Florida legislation passed in 2011, at least 14 other states have introduced similar bills, but none have passed.  

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2/16/2017 12:00 AM
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