Thursday, April 12, 2012

The winner of the Muzzle award is The Florida Legislature and Governor Rick Scott

For passing a law limiting physicians from talking to their patients about gun safety, the first 2012 Muzzle goes to…

The Florida State Legislature and Florida Governor Rick Scott.

In July of 2010, Chris Okonkwo, a pediatrician in Ocala, Florida asked the mother of one of his patients whether she kept a gun in her home. 

Okonkwo typically asked his patients safety-related questions on a number of topics, including: guns, swimming pools, bike helmets, and teens’ cell phone usage while driving. The American Association of 

Pediatrics recommends that doctors make such inquires in order to advise patients about potential risks and possible safety precautions. On this occasion, however, the mother refused to answer his question, stating that it was not Okonkwo’s business whether she owned a gun. 

Feeling uncomfortable about the lack of open discussion between himself and his patient’s mother, Okonkwo asked her to find a new doctor. 

This became known among lawyers, gun rights advocates, and doctors as “The Ocala Incident.”

The National Rifle Association and other groups asserted that physicians asking their patients about gun ownership and usage was inappropriate and a possible violation of the patients’ privacy and Second Amendment rights. In response to the Ocala Incident, the Florida

Legislature drafted and passed the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act, which stated physicians should refrain from asking patients questions about firearms unless they were necessary for medical care. Under this first in the nation law, violators were subject to disciplinary action including loss of the doctor’s medical license and fines up to $10,000. 

Upon signing the bill into law on June 2, 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott stated the Act was “carefully crafted to respect the First Amendment.” 

But physicians’ groups and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence disagreed and challenged the law in court, arguing that the law infringed on free speech in a context where open communication is crucial—the doctor–patient relationship.
On September 14, 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cookeruled that the Act unconstitutionally restricted doctors’ speech, and issued a temporary injunction against its enforcement. “This case concerns one of our Constitution’s most precious rights—the freedom of speech,” said Judge Cooke. 

The judge added: 

A practitioner, who counsels a patient on firearm safety, even when entirely irrelevant to medical care or safety, does not affect or interfere with the patient’s right to continue to own, possess or use firearms.

Speech about gun safety and rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment are not at odds. Indeed, the NRA provides an extensive amount of information on how to safely operate firearms, and sponsors numerous gun safety clinics. 

The issue here is not gun ownership but speech about the use of guns. As such, Judge Cooke was entirely correct in holding that the government has no role to play in determining how doctors address the issue with patients.

Governor Scott has vowed to appeal, saying that he is “confident” the state will be successful. 

To date, however, it does not appear that an appeal has been filed. In hopes it might dissuade the Governor from doing so and once again interjecting the government into private conversations between doctors and their patients, Governor Scott and the Florida State Legislature receive a 2012 Jefferson Muzzle.

Rightardia should also mention that Florida law requires a trigger lock on any guns in a home in which children under the age of 18 are also present. Pediatricians should advise parents about his law. 


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