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Court Rules Doctors Can Ask Patients About Gun Ownership

Smith and Wesson handguns are displayed during the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting (Getty Images)

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Florida law restricting doctors from asking patients whether they own guns restricts the right to free speech.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law violated doctors’ First Amendment right to free speech, and concluded that the state failed to prove that physicians were infringing on patients’ Second Amendment rights. A previous decision by a three-judge panel by the 11th Circuit upheld the law, but those suing the state asked for the full circuit court to re-consider the case.

“The Second Amendment right to own and possess firearms does not preclude questions about, commentary on, or criticism for the exercise of that right,” Judge Adalberto Jordan concluded in the majority opinion. “There is not actual conflict between the First Amendment rights of doctors and medical professionals and the Second Amendment rights of patients.”

“The promise of free speech is that even when one holds an unpopular point of view, the state cannot stifle it,” Judge William Pryor wrote in a concurring opinion. “The price Americans pay for this freedom is that the rule remains unchanged regardless of who is in the majority.” Pryor was a top candidate to be President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, losing out to Neil Gorsuch. (RELATED: Trump’s Supreme Court Short List)

The Republican-controlled Florida state legislature passed a law in 2011 preventing doctors from asking patients about their gun ownership and gun safety procedures. Supporters of the law argued that doctors in the state were overstepping their authority and pushing an anti-Second Amendment agenda.

The move came after a Florida couple said their physician had asked about gun ownership and refused to see them after they declined to answer, according to the Miami Herald. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence quickly challenged the law, which has been battled over in the court system for years.

The ruling upheld some parts of the law, however, including provisions that allow patients to refuse to answer questions regarding firearms and that prohibit health insurance companies from either denying coverage or upping premiums based on gun ownership.

Lawyers for the state of Florida said that under the law, doctors could freely ask about guns if the questions were relevant to the patient’s health and safety or another person’s safety, but that the law was intended to stop harassment of gun owners. Supporters of the law also argued that there was potential for improper disclosure of gun ownership in health records; the court determine there was no evidence of either.

“There is nothing in the record suggesting that patients who are bothered or offended by such questions are psychologically unable to choose another medical provider, just as they are permitted to do if their doctor asks too many questions about private matters like sexual activity, alcohol consumption, or drug use,” the ruling concluded. “None of the anecdotes cited by the Florida Legislature involved the improper disclosure or release of patient information concerning firearm ownership.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has supported the case against the law and the executive director of the ACLU Florida, Howard Sion, said he was “thrilled” with Thursday’s decision.

“We are thrilled that the court has finally put to bed the nonsensical and dangerous idea that a doctor speaking with a patient about gun safety somehow threatens the right to own a gun,” Simon said in a statement.

Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Center, which brought the lawsuit against the legislature, cheered the victory and said in a statement that “the gun lobby and its lap dogs don’t want Americans to know the truth about the danger of guns in the home because it will hurt their bottom line.”

A representative of the National Rifle Association, which has supported the law, castigated the decision, arguing the court treated gun owners like “second-class citizens.”

“This activist decision attempts to use the First Amendment as a sword to terrorize the Second Amendment and completely disregards the rights and the will of the elected representatives of the people of Florida,” Marion Hammer, a gun-rights lobbyist and former head of the National Rifle Association, charged in a statement Friday. “The Legislature has every right to regulate any profession to protect the public from discrimination and abuse. Doctors are businessmen, not gods.”

Hammer noted that the court upheld provisions of the law which allowed patients to refuse to answer doctors’ gun questions, adding, “I’m sure anti-gun doctors are not happy about that.”

If the case is appealed, it will go to the Supreme Court.

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