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Brady Center, Ropes and Gray Intend to File Suit today on Behalf of Doctors to Strike Down Florida Gun Law Limiting Free Speech

6/6/2011

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Ropes & Gray law firm intend to file a lawsuit in federal court today to strike down an unprecedented new law in Florida that interferes with health care providers’ ability to warn patients about the risks posed by firearms and to offer them advice on gun safety. 

The suit contends that the Florida law is a violation of basic First Amendment rights and seeks a permanent injunction to block implementation of the law.

“This gun lobby-backed gag law is a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of doctors and patients to discuss the severe risks posed by guns in the home, particularly to children,” said Brady Center President Paul Helmke. “Given that Florida has some of the highest violent crimes rates in the nation, some of the weakest gun laws, and a gun death rate higher than the national average, Gov. Rick Scott and the legislators cowed by the gun lobby should know better than to support any measure that makes Floridians more vulnerable to guns.”

Lisa A. Cosgrove, MD, FAAP, president of the Florida Pediatric Society (Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics) said, “Your pediatrician has the responsibility to discuss with you and other patients the scientifically-proven risks to children posed by guns in the home. With 65 children and teens shot and eight of them killed every day in the United States, restricting the ability of pediatricians to fully discuss the significant risks posed by guns is dangerous and a violation of the standard of care we as physicians owe our patients.”

The American College of Physicians President Virginia L. Hood, MBBS, MPH, FACP, said, “On this particular issue, ACP’s policy encourages physicians ‘to inform patients about the dangers of keeping firearms, particularly handguns, in the home and to advise them on ways to reduce the risk of injury.’ However, this issue is much bigger than guns, it is about whether the government or any other body should be allowed to tell physicians what they can and can't discuss with their patients.”

Attorneys with the Brady Center and the law firms Ropes & Gray LLP and Astigarraga Davis intend to file the lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on behalf of organizations representing health care providers as well as individual doctors, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Florida Chapter; American Academy of Family Physicians, Florida Chapter; and the American College of Physicians, Florida Chapter. 

The lawsuit cites the extreme risk posed by firearms and the duty of health care providers to counsel patients about risks to their health and well-being. One-third of U.S. homes with children younger than 18 have a firearm. More than 40 percent of gun-owning households with children store their guns unlocked and one-quarter of those homes store them loaded. Children aged 5 to 14 years in the United States are 11 times more likely to be killed accidentally with a gun than similarly aged children in other developed countries. Because of these well-documented risks, pediatricians advise parents to keep guns away from children, secured with gun locks, and stored separately from ammunition.

According to Doug Hallward-Driemeier, a partner at Ropes & Gray LLP and co-counsel for the physicians, “this case is about the core principle of the First Amendment that the government cannot tell individual citizens what they can and cannot say. Patients have a right to trust that doctors are providing their honest and best advice about matters of health and safety. The Florida legislature cannot require that doctors first put that advice through a government-approved filter.”

The Florida law, H.B. 155, subjects health care providers to possible sanctions, including fines and loss of their license, if they discuss or record information in a patient's chart about firearm safety that a medical board later determines was not “relevant” or was “unnecessarily harassing.” The law, however, does not define these terms. The suit charges that the law is unconstitutionally vague and violates the First Amendment by having a severe chilling effect on confidential, life-saving discussions.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 60,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit www.aap.org.