Doctors should be free to talk about gun safety

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Medical professionals have the right to protect people — that’s what a federal appeals court in Florida unanimously ruled in mid-February when it said doctors can’t be penalized for discussing gun safety with their patients. It was a well-deserved comeuppance for the gun lobby and its latest ploy to pit Second Amendment rights against the First Amendment. They sought to muzzle doctors when they talked to their patients about gun safety, but the court didn’t buy the argument.

Lawmakers in Florida had passed a state law in 2011 that threatened to rescind doctors’ licenses and impose fines if they asked patients simple questions about weapons storage. But doctors, and especially pediatricians, regularly discuss safety surrounding guns, pools and other important health-related issues with their patients.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages pediatricians to discuss firearm safety with their patients. One in three American homes with children have guns, and 1.7 million kids live in homes with loaded firearms. It’s the reasonable thing to do, and absolutely in keeping with the medical profession’s mission to protect and sustain human life. Gun accidents are a leading cause of child deaths, and when doctors make recommendations, their patients are three times more likely to safely store their guns.

Besides, any attempt to block free speech, as the Florida measure attempted to do, represents a clear violation of a doctor’s First Amendment rights. Since Florida passed its gag law, 10 other states have tried and failed to pass their own bills. Some, though, did manage to pass other measures that stand in between the doctor-patient relationship.

Missouri in 2014 passed a bill making it more difficult for doctors to ask patients about firearm safety but falling short of an outright gag order. Gun safety groups say the law nevertheless helps stifle doctor-patient discussions about guns. A 2016 study by the Washington University School of Medicine showed that only 13 percent of families were asked by their pediatricians about household firearms. The report’s researchers found that laws like Missouri’s and Florida’s “have likely increased physicians’ uncertainty about what they can say and their concern that discussing the topic may be received negatively.”

Almost three-quarters of gun-owning parents surveyed by the Washington University researchers say they want their kids’ physicians to advise them about household gun safety.

The National Rifle Association suggests that such doctor-patient discussions impinge on gun owners’ privacy, which is an absurd notion. Every patient has a right to tell the doctor to mind his or her own business. But the conversation could cause gun owners to think twice before carelessly leaving a gun where a child could access it. If it’s a question between privacy and saving lives, the latter priority should prevail every time.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch