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Five years after Florida lawmakers passed what became known as the "Docs v. Glocks" law, a full federal appeals court will hear arguments Tuesday in a constitutional dispute that pits physicians against gun-rights advocates.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, meeting in Atlanta, will take up a challenge by physician groups and individual doctors to the 2011 law, which seeks to restrict doctors from asking questions and recording information about patients' gun ownership.
The arguments come after years of legal wrangling that has included debates about First Amendment and Second Amendment rights and questions about how far doctors should go in discussing safety with patients. A large part of the dispute has focused on gun-related conversations between doctors and parents as children are being treated.
Marion Hammer, a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, which backed the 2011 law, said doctors "have no business asking you what private personal property you own."
"When they ask about guns, and then they lecture you to get rid of guns, that's politics," Hammer told The News Service of Florida on Monday. "It's not medicine. We take our children to the doctor because they are sick. We don't take them there for political lectures on guns."
But pediatric cardiologist Louis St. Petery, a former executive vice president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said doctors also discuss other safety issues with parents when treating children. For example, he said doctors discuss issues related to poisons, swimming pools and cars.
"What we are after is to protect that kid and be sure that kid doesn't get killed or injured inappropriately because the firearm that is in the home is not properly stored," St. Petery said during an interview.
Tuesday's arguments come after a somewhat-unusual move by the full appeals court to agree to hear the case, a move known as hearing the case "en banc." A U.S. District Court judge blocked the law from taking effect, but a three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld the law in three rulings. The full appeals court then agreed to take up the case.
The case has drawn widespread attention from legal, medical and Second Amendment groups, with friend-of-the-court briefs filed by groups ranging from the American Bar Association to the NRA.
The law, which the Legislature passed after heavy debate, seeks to place 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.
The physicians and medical groups challenging the law, dubbed the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, argue that it violates free-speech rights.
"In FOPA (the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act), the Florida Legislature does what no legislative body has done before or since; it prevents doctors from providing patients with truthful advice to keep their families healthy and safe — speech that is recommended as standard protocol by national medical associations," attorneys for the challengers wrote in an April brief. "If FOPA is allowed to stand, it sets precedent for states, at the bidding of other industries or special interests, to prevent doctors from speaking to patients about risks posed by other dangerous products or activities. The First Amendment does not allow the state to single out and censor one topic (firearms), or one group (doctors, or patients), or to so interfere with the doctor-patient relationship."
But lawyers in Attorney General Pam Bondi's office, which is defending the state in the case, contended in a brief that plaintiffs do not have legal "standing" to challenge the law. But even if the doctors have standing, Bondi's office argued the law "passes muster under any level of First Amendment review."
"By shielding gun-owning patients and families from discrimination, unnecessary harassment, and bad-faith, irrelevant inquiries and record-keeping, the act narrowly advances the state's compelling interests in protecting the fundamental right to keep and bear arms from private encumbrances, safeguarding patient privacy, eliminating barriers to health care, and preventing discrimination and harassment in the provision of health care services,'' the brief said. "The act represents the most modest of all professional regulations — a requirement that doctors stick to practicing medicine — and it accomplishes its compelling goals without interfering with doctors' professional judgment or otherwise burdening more speech than necessary."