Doctors Want to Talk to Parents About This, but More States Are Making It Illegal

Safety first, unless a certain powerful lobby is involved.

(Photo: Rafe Swan/Getty Images)

Nov 28, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

Along with asking kids to say "ahhh" and tapping their knees with those little hammers, pediatricians often go through a long list of safety questions with parents, such as “Do you have a car seat?” or “Where do you store your household chemicals?”

In Florida a lot of people have swimming pools, said Dr. Louis St. Petery, a pediatric cardiologist based in Tallahassee, so he regularly speaks with patients about how to keep children safe from drowning.

But there's one thing he's not allowed to ask about: guns. That's because a Florida gag law keeps doctors from asking. Guns kill an average of eight children and teens under the age of 20 on a daily basis, according to the Brady Campaign.

“This happens very, very frequently,” said St. Petery. “There are news reports constantly about children shot accidentally by loaded guns in the home. No child should die that way.”

Case in point: Earlier this month, Tanya Charles left her teenagers to watch their younger siblings, but they went to the store. That's when Charles' unattended nine-year-old daughter shot her eight-year-old son in the head, leaving the boy in critical care. It's unclear if anyone ever asked Charles about how she stored her guns, but doctors say that if she had answered the questions of a pediatrician at some point, maybe she wouldn't be answering to police investigators now.

Stories like these are why St. Petery and hordes of other doctors are seeking to defeat the state legislation that discourages doctors from talking to their patients about gun ownership and proper gun storage.

The gag law was initially passed in 2011 in Florida with great support from the National Rifle Association, but it was quickly overturned after a group of doctors filed a lawsuit that claimed the restrictive law violated their First Amendment rights. That ruling was then appealed and the law reinstated in July of this year. In the “docs v. glocks” case, as it's known, judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit justified Florida’s Firearm Owners' Privacy Act by saying patients shouldn’t be subject to “irrelevant inquiry and record-keeping” by their doctor.

Doctors insist that this not only infringes on their free speech but restricts them from doing their job. So the legal seesaw continues and plaintiffs in the case, including the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (of which St. Petery is executive vice president), are now seeking a rehearing in front of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

St. Petery has nothing against guns—his wife has had one in the house for years—but he thinks it’s crucial that parents know about the proper protocol for storing their firearm.

“Most people buy a gun for safety reasons, but they don’t really know much about guns,” he said.

In Florida more than 1 million residents have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and research shows that although many American families keep guns in their home as a form of self-defense against intruders, they are far more likely to use that gun in an unintentional shooting, suicide, or domestic murder.

Many states have rigorous laws that outline how these firearms must be stored, especially when there are children involved. Florida law states that any person who stores a loaded firearm in a home where a child 16 or younger may be able to access it must either put a trigger lock on the gun, keep it in a “securely locked” box, or store it somewhere that a “reasonable person would believe to be secure.”

Teaching parents about these guidelines would fall under the category of “anticipatory guidance,” said St. Petery, a widely touted concept preached by public health pillars—such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—that encourage doctors to help families prevent injuries instead of treat them.

“One of the biggest things in pediatrics, dealing with children, is prevention,” said St. Petery. “Once they’re shot dead you’re not going to bring them back.”

The effects of these counseling sessions are difficult to quantify, but research shows patients tend to listen to their doctors, so they are in an unusual position to discuss risky behavior with patients, said Lindsey Zwicker, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

"Gun ownership, we think, is a crucial part of that conversation,” said Zwicker.

Sixty-four percent of patients who were counseled on proper gun storage by their doctors then adopted safe storage practices, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

But none of this matters to the NRA and other staunch supporters of the gag law, who say doctors asking patients about their gun ownership is an invasion of privacy. The NRA didn't respond to TakePart's request for comment; the agency has publicly stated that the court's decision to uphold this law was a "significant defeat for the gun control lobby."

“It is not a physician's business whether his or her patient chooses to exercise their fundamental, individual right to own a firearm,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, in response to the July ruling.

In that decision, the court sided with the NRA by stating that the Florida Firearm Owners' Privacy Act was a “legitimate regulation of professional conduct” and that “physicians have for millennia been subject to codes of conduct.”

Although Florida is the first state to enact legislation of this kind, other states have since followed suit with slightly less stringent versions of the law. Nine states have introduced similar legislation, and so far two—Missouri and Montana—have made the restriction into law, said Zwicker.