Court ruling gives green light to allow doctors to ask patients about guns

An appeals court has ruled that doctors cannot be prevented from asking patients about gun ownership.

Although the case may ultimately be decided in the U.S. Supreme Court, a recent appeals court ruling keeps the door open for physicians to ask patients about gun ownership.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that a Florida law prohibiting doctors from asking patients about guns in the home violated a physician’s free speech rights. The ruling in the so-called Docs vs. Glocks case allows physicians to ask about gun ownership, to advise patients about gun safety and to document that information.

The ruling overturned most aspects of the controversial 2011 Florida law, called the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act. Only one provision—that healthcare professionals cannot refuse care to patients who own guns—was upheld.

The ruling means physicians can counsel patients about firearm safety without fear of facing sanctions or possibly losing their license, New York City attorney Janet Bastawros told Medical Economics.

If it had prevailed, the law would have prevented doctors from asking about gun ownership unless a provider believed the information was relevant to patient safety. However, that creates a gray area about what constitutes patient safety. For instance, pediatricians are concerned about children being accidentally injured by firearms in a home, while psychiatrists might worry about patients harming themselves or others, according to the article.

Doctors have historically been given the freedom to talk about what they want with patients without government intrusion, Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D., an ethicist in the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University School of Medicine, wrote in a recent piece for Medscape (reg. req.). He agrees with that stance.

In an adjoining survey, 97% of respondents said states should not place limits on topics that physicians can discuss with a patient and 84% said doctors should be allowed to ask patients if they own a gun. A lesser number (63%) said physicians should record information about gun ownership or if there is a gun in the home in a patient’s medical chart.