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ACP Applauds Federal Appeals Court Decision Overturning Unconstitutional Florida Ban on Physicians Counseling Patients on Gun Safety

Washington (February 17, 2017)  The American College of Physicians (ACP) applauds Thursday’s federal appeals court decision that overturned a Florida state law that barred doctors from counseling patients about reducing injuries and deaths from firearms. 

“This is a huge victory for patient safety, and for physicians’ First Amendment rights” said Dr. Nitin Damle, MD, MS, MACP, ACP’s president.  “It clearly establishes that physicians have the right under the Constitution to freely discuss with their patients ways to prevent injuries and deaths, including those associated with having unsecured firearms in their home.”

The ruling of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said that doctors could not be threatened with losing their licenses for asking patients if they owned guns and for discussing gun safety because to do so would violate their free speech. ACP strongly opposed Florida’s Firearms Owners Privacy Act and joined eight other medical specialty societies in signing an Amicus Brief urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to uphold a lower court decision that ruled the law unconstitutional. The plaintiffs, including the Florida Chapter of the American College of Physicians, individual Florida doctors, the Florida Pediatric Society/Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, Florida Chapter, sued the state of Florida for its unconstitutional intrusion on physician’s constitutional right to speak freely to patients about the risk of unsecured firearms in the home; the national ACP joined in an amicus brief to the court supporting the plaintiff’s case.

"The Florida Chapter is delighted with the 11th Circuit's ruling, which upheld the principle that the government should not interfere in the doctor-patient relationship,” said Jason M. Goldman, MD, FACP, governor of the Florida Chapter of ACP.  ”While the Chapter does not wish to impinge on the rights of gun owners, it has fought this legislation in the Legislature and in the courts because it is essential that physicians and patients have the right to an open dialogue, free from government restrictions. Yesterday's ruling is a victory for patients and the profession.”

Dr. Goldman also cited past-chapter Governor Stuart B. Himmelstein, MD, MACP, who he said “has made a mission of protecting the First Amendment rights of both physicians and patients and who has been a leading advocate in this battle over the past six years."

The court’s decision will help save many lives, said ACP.  According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence:

  • in 2010, unintentional firearm injuries caused the deaths of 606 people;
  • from 2005-2010, almost 3,800 people in the U.S. died from unintentional shootings; and 
  • more than 1,300 victims of unintentional shootings for the period 2005–2010 were under 25 years of age.

Additionally, a June 17, 2014 article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine said, it is estimated that each year, firearms kill more than 33,000 people in the United State.  These deaths include homicides, suicides, and unintentional fatalities.  The number of non-fatal firearm injuries in the United States is more than twice the number of fatal firearm injuries, with 73,883 non-fatal firearm injuries documented in 2011.

ACP has long recommended that physicians ask about gun ownership as a normal part of screening patients, including it on a long list of health questions about drug and alcohol use, smoking, exercise and eating habits.

The College believes that constitutional issues addressed by the court decision are much bigger than guns.  It affirms a basic constitutional principle that the government should not be allowed to tell physicians what they can and can’t discuss with their patients, consistent with evidence-based standards of care.

In 2014, ACP underscored a list of nine recommendations on firearms-related violence and included preserving the rights of doctors to counsel their patients on preventing deaths and injuries from firearms.  In this regard, state governments must also do their part, by not imposing restrictions on engaging such discussion with their patients, as Florida attempted to do.

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The American College of Physicians is the largest medical specialty organization in the United States. ACP members include 148,000 internal medicine physicians (internists), related subspecialists, and medical students. Internal medicine physicians are specialists who apply scientific knowledge and clinical expertise to the diagnosis, treatment, and compassionate care of adults across the spectrum from health to complex illness. Follow ACP on Twitter and Facebook.

Contact: David Kinsman, APR (202) 261-4554, dkinsman@acponline.org