TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Readying for oral arguments in June, attorneys for the state and Second Amendment groups are urging a full federal appeals court to uphold a 2011 Florida law that would restrict doctors from asking questions and recording information about patients' gun ownership.
Attorney General Pam Bondi's office and the National Rifle Association filed documents Monday in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backing the law, which has become widely known as the "docs v. glocks" law. Other Second Amendment groups, including the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, also made filings last week in support of the law.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court issued three rulings during the past two years that upheld the constitutionality of the law. But the full appeals court in February agreed to take up the dispute, with opponents arguing that the law violates doctors' free-speech rights. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 21 in Atlanta.
In the brief filed Monday by four attorneys from Bondi's office, the state contends that doctors who are plaintiffs in the case 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."
NRA attorneys requested approval to file a friend-of-the-court brief, which was attached to the request. The brief said the law "furthers several compelling state interests intimately connected with the medical profession and public health."
"First, the act facilitates the exercise of Second Amendment rights by protecting citizens who choose to exercise those rights from discrimination and harassment in the provision of medical care,'' the NRA brief said. "Second, the act serves the state's interest in protecting the privacy of patients' exercise of Second Amendment rights. Third, the act serves the state's compelling interest in reducing the likelihood that individuals will suffer discrimination and harassment in the provision of medical care. And fourth, the act serves the state's important interest in regulating the medical profession."
The plaintiffs in the challenge, including individual doctors and physician groups, are not required to file a brief until April 27. But in a January petition seeking the hearing before the full appeals court, the plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the majority of the three-judge panel erred on free-speech issues. Also, the petition said the panel's opinion posed a "a grave threat to public health and safety in Florida."
"That some patients find inquiries about gun ownership 'intrusive' or believe that gun ownership is a 'sensitive' topic does not give the state license to shut down entirely those inquiries, which are at the very heart of many doctors' everyday conversations with patients,'' the January petition said. "Indeed, the majority's rationale could apply equally to other standard features of doctor-patient counseling and inquiry: the risks associated with smoking, certain sexual activity, drugs and alcohol. Banning this frank conversation between doctors and their patients will have devastating consequences, particularly during a public health epidemic of firearms-related injuries and deaths. Under the majority's opinion, Florida residents will receive less information about gun safety, resulting in avoidable injuries and even deaths."
The law, which sparked heavy debate before getting approved by the Legislature, includes a series of restrictions on doctors and other health providers. As an 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.
As another example, the law says a health-care provider "shall respect a patient's legal right to own or possess a firearm and should refrain from unnecessarily harassing a patient about firearm ownership during an examination."