TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Raising concerns about First Amendment rights and public health, opponents of a controversial Florida law aimed at restricting doctors from asking questions about patients’ gun ownership have asked a full federal appeals court to take up the issue.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month upheld the constitutionality of the 2011 law, which has drawn heavy attention and was dubbed the “docs vs. glocks” law. The 2-1 ruling was a victory for gun-rights supporters such as the National Rifle Association and a defeat for medical groups.
Attorneys for opponents filed documents Tuesday asking the full appeals court to hear the case, a move known as seeking an “en banc” hearing. The documents also make clear that opponents plan to go to the U.S. Supreme Court if they continue to be unsuccessful at the Atlanta-based appeals court.
“The (appeals-court panel) majority’s decision breaks with established precedent and will invite other attempts to silence professional speech because of its message,” one of the documents said. “(The law), on its face, restricts professional speech on the basis of its content, and disagreement with a particular viewpoint is what spurred its passage.”
The law includes a series of restrictions on doctors and other health providers. For example, it seeks to prevent physicians from entering information about gun ownership into medical records if the physicians know the information is not “relevant” to patients’ medical care or safety or to the safety of other people.
Also, the law says doctors should refrain from asking about gun ownership by patients or family members unless the doctors believe in “good faith” that the information is relevant to medical care or safety. Also, the law seeks to prevent doctors from discriminating against patients or “harassing” them because of owning firearms.
In the panel ruling last month, the majority pointed to instances in which doctors could continue justify asking about firearms, such as in the case of a patient considered at risk of suicide.
“The purpose of the act, as we read it, is not to protect patient privacy by shielding patients from any and all discussion about firearms with their physicians; the act merely requires physicians to refrain from broaching a concededly sensitive topic when they lack any good-faith belief that such information is relevant to the medical care or safety of their patients or others,” the majority opinion said.
The documents filed Tuesday said the law has effectively remained on hold during a legal battle, which included a federal district judge issuing a preliminary injunction in 2011 and further ruling against the law in 2012. A stay remains in place while the opponents seek a hearing before the full appeals court.
But one of the documents filed Tuesday also asked for a stay to remain in place if the request for an “en banc” hearing is rejected. That is because opponents would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If the challenged provisions are permitted to take effect, (the law) ensures that Florida residents will receive less information about firearm safety from their physicians,” the document said. “The public health consequences of allowing the act to go into effect at all — let alone while the Supreme Court still is considering it — are clear, and they are significant.”
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.