In a 2-1 ruling July 25, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a Florida law that restricts intrusive questioning by physicians about patients' ownership and use of firearms. The action reversed a 2012 injunction issued by a federal judge in Miami, who ruled the NRA-supported Firearm Owners' Privacy Act violated the free-speech rights of physicians to counsel their patients about "health-related matters."
The case, Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida, challenged the law and insisted physicians had a right under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to routinely question patients on their choices concerning firearms ownership as a health-related matter. In its ruling last week, the Court of Appeals rejected the suit's claims.
"The essence of the Act," the court wrote, "is simple: medical practitioners should not record information or inquire about patients' firearm-ownership status when doing so is not necessary to providing the patient with good medical care." Accordingly, the court found that "[t]he Act merely circumscribes the unnecessary collection of patient information on one of many potential sensitive topics."
The court noted nothing in the Florida law prohibits doctors from expressing their views about firearms or about any other medical or public policy issue. Rather, it is within keeping of long-established "codes of conduct that define the practice of good medicine and affirm the responsibility that physicians bear" and "protects a patient's ability to receive effective medical treatment without compromising the patient's privacy with regard to matters unrelated to healthcare."
The Firearm Owners' Privacy Act was passed in 2011 in response to an American Medical Association policy that encouraged doctors to inquire about the presence of firearms in homes.
"We find that the Act is a valid regulation of professional conduct that has only incidental effect on physicians' speech," wrote Judge Gerald Tjoflat, adding, "The Act simply codifies that good medical care does not require inquiry or record-keeping regarding firearms when unnecessary to a patient's care."