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Physicians and Firearms: Finding a Duty to Talk to Patients About Guns [from Bill of Health]

In April, our Center for Health Policy and Law hosted a two-day conference entitled "Diseases of Despair: The Role of Policy and Law." Our friends at Harvard Law School's Petrie-Flom Center is now hosting a blog symposium from that conference on Bill of Health

The second piece is from our own Elisabeth J. Ryan.  For the full post, please visit Bill of Health. Additionally, a much longer version of this post will appear as an article in the forthcoming Winter edition of the Northeastern University Law Review.

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This post is part of a symposium from speakers and participants of Northeastern University School of Law’s annual health law conference, Diseases of Despair: The Role of Policy and Law, organized by the Center for Health Policy and Law.

All the posts in the series are available here.

Florida enacted a statute in 2011 entitled the “Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act,” which quickly became known nationwide as simply the “Docs v. Glocks” law.

This law essentially forbade doctors from asking their patients about gun ownership, recording information about guns in the home, and “unnecessarily harassing” patients for being gun owners. The penalty was potential medical license sanctions and a fine up to $10,000.

Championed by the NRA and the state of Florida as protecting Second Amendment rights, the law set off a nationwide debate about the free speech rights of physicians, the role the medical community plays in the fight against gun violence, and the rights of patients to keep the exercise of their Second Amendment rights private. Several Florida doctors challenged the law almost immediately, claiming that it infringed not only on their right to speak with patients, but on the patients’ rights to hear that speech. While the ensuing procedural history of Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida was complex to say the least, the full Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately struck down most of the law as a violation of the First Amendment in 2017.

Though the ruling technically applies only within the Eleventh Circuit, the decision (which Florida wisely declined to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court) had social and legal ramifications far beyond that region. The message was clear: physicians have a right to talk to their patients about firearms. The next logical step is to ask whether they actually have a duty to do so.

Please visit Bill of Health for the rest of the post!

Elisabeth Ryan