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Court Sides With Doctors and Families Over Gun Lobby


Written by: Jonathan Lowy

Imagine if doctors were not allowed to tell patients smoking may cause cancer, or kids should wear bicycle helmets, or medications should be stored out of reach of children. Imagine if a doctor could lose her medical license for doing her job.

That was the law in Florida for guns, until February 16, 2017. In 2011 the corporate gun lobby convinced the state legislature to enact a law restricting doctors from talking about guns with their patients. The law authorized the Board of Medicine to revoke doctors' medical licenses and subject them to fines up to $10,000 per offense if they talked to patients about the risks posed by guns. But these important discussions are recommended medical protocol -- and save lives. That's why the American Association of Pediatrics and other medical associations suggest all pediatricians ask whether there are guns in the home, and recommend their safe storage..

Florida's law put doctors in an untenable position. Their oath required them to provide patients with safety information about the risks of guns in the home and about the need to store guns safely. Providing this information is critical: one of out of every three homes with kids also has a gun, and many of those guns are stored unlocked, loaded, and accessible to children. As a result, every year in America about 1,500 children are shot and killed, often with a gun in the home.

That's why, when the gun lobby pushed for this law, doctors in Florida turned to the Brady Center for help. For more than 25 years, Brady's legal team has been the only group of lawyers in America dedicated to fighting in the courts to reduce gun violence. We concluded the law violated the First Amendment rights of doctors.

We brought together a stellar legal team, led by Douglas Hallward-Driemeier of Ropes & Gray, and filed suit on behalf of several brave Florida doctors, the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other medical groups. A district court judge agreed the law violated the First Amendment, but a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed, 2-1. Then the 11th Circuit took the case en banc, meaning the full court reviewed the appeal.

Recently, the full 11th Circuit overwhelmingly agreed with our arguments and struck down the gag rule, 10-1. In no uncertain terms, the court recognized the First Amendment prohibits the state from restricting speech about the risks of guns. The court threw out the heart of Florida's gag law, leaving only one provision that prevents actual discrimination against a gun owner -- which was a nonexistent problem in search of a solution..

This decision established important precedent that will have national repercussions, preventing powerful special interests from silencing doctors about the risks of guns in other states as well. It allowed doctors to do their jobs, and protect the safety of families in Florida. It put a halt to the gun lobby's plans to enact other gag laws across the country. And it established a life-saving legal principle: there's a constitutional right to tell the truth about guns.

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