Revised "don't ask" gun bill advances in Florida

A compromise removes civil and criminal penalties for asking about gun ownership but would refer physicians to the medical board for "harassing" gun-owning patients.

By — Posted April 25, 2011

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Florida lawmakers are moving ahead with consideration of a bill that would refer physicians to the Florida Board of Medicine for possible sanctions if they ask patients harassing questions about gun ownership, enter unnecessary information about gun ownership in patient medical records, or discriminate against patients who own guns.

The new version of the bill is a compromise between gun rights advocates and the Florida Medical Assn.

"The FMA is satisfied that the current bill, with the compromise language, allows physicians to continue to look out for the safety and well-being of their patients," said FMA Executive Vice President Tim Stapleton. "The FMA is also pleased that the compromise language removed all civil and criminal penalties related to the patient-physician relationship."

The original bill would have fined physicians up to $5 million and sentenced them to up to five years in prison for asking about patients' gun ownership, refusing to treat patients who won't answer such questions or entering gun ownership information into any record.

The amended bill would allow physicians to ask patients questions about gun ownership, enter such information into a record if it is medically relevant and choose which patients to see for reasons other than gun ownership.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics and its Florida chapter oppose the compromise, said Louis St. Petery, MD, executive vice president of the Florida chapter of the AAP.

Even with the decreased penalties, the measure would limit physicians' ability to ask questions about gun safety and storage, which are part of the AAP's physician guidelines addressing preventable accidents. The AAP advises parents with guns to store them unloaded and locked, with a separate lock on the trigger.

"Injury prevention is a standard of pediatric health care at every well-child visit, starting in infancy," said Lisa Cosgrove, MD, president of the Florida AAP chapter. "Discovering potential risks, such as the presence of a gun in the home, and providing education on how to prevent injury is central to the practice of pediatric medicine."

The original bill and the compromise language was inspired partly by a July 2010 encounter between an Ocala pediatrician and a couple with a 4-month-old son. The family refused to answer the pediatrician's questions about gun ownership and storage. The pediatrician responded by giving the family 30 days to find another doctor.

Dr. St. Petery said some gun-owning patients are very likely to find any questions about firearm ownership harassing or always deem it unnecessary for the doctor to enter gun ownership information in medical records. The bill would allow these patients to ask the Florida Board of Medicine to discipline physicians. Possible penalties range from sending a letter of concern to the physician to permanently revoking the physician's medical license.

"Now it's my licensing board, which is my livelihood," he said.

Dr. St. Petery is alarmed because during committee hearings, several lawmakers said discussing injury prevention is not part of a pediatrician's scope of practice. "They have no clue what's within our scope of practice."

But Marion Hammer, former National Rifle Assn. president and executive director of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, the NRA's state legislative affiliate, said the AAP has been critical of gun ownership for years. "Families take their kids to pediatricians for medical care, not to talk about guns," she said.

AAP policy says the only way to prevent unintended injuries to children due to guns is to keep guns out of homes and communities. However, AAP policy is not the same as the organization's physician guidelines for advising patients on safety.

The Florida AAP does not oppose guns, said Dr. St. Petery, who noted that he owns a shotgun. But the Florida AAP will not accept the compromise version of the bill, because the organization opposes restricting pediatricians' ability to discuss preventable injuries with patients, he said. "There needs to be no bill."

American Medical Association policy on gun ownership calls for the storage of unloaded firearms in locked cabinets with trigger locks. AMA policy also supports legislation to hold gun owners legally responsible for injuries or deaths caused by a child gaining unsupervised access to a gun, unless reasonable precautions were taken by the owner.

Hammer said the Florida Legislature is taking the compromise bill seriously. Three House committees and four Senate committees have adopted the amended bill. The same version of the bill is on the House calendar and is expected to be placed on the Senate calendar.

The bills were introduced by Rep. Jason Brodeur in the House and Sen. Greg Evers in the Senate.

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