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Sat May 7, 2011
Around the Nation

Florida Bill Could Muzzle Doctors On Gun Safety

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign a bill that will make the state the first in the nation to prohibit doctors from asking patients if they own guns. The bill is aimed particularly at pediatricians, who routinely ask new parents if they have guns at home and if they're stored safely.

Pediatricians say it's about preventing accidental injuries. Gun rights advocates say the doctors have a political agenda.

An Invasion Of Privacy?

As parents know, pediatricians ask a lot of questions. Dr. Louis St. Petery says it's all part of what doctors call "anticipatory guidance" — teaching parents how to safeguard against accidental injuries. Pediatricians ask about bike helmets, seat belts and other concerns.

"If you have a pool, let's talk about pool safety so we don't have accidental drownings," he says. "And if you have firearms, let's talk about gun safety so that they're stored properly — you know, the gun needs to be locked up, the ammunition stored separate from the gun, etc., so that children don't have access to them."

For decades, the American Academy of Pediatrics has encouraged its members to ask questions about guns and how they're stored, as part of well-child visits.

But Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Tallahassee, says that's not a pediatrician's job.

"We take our children to pediatricians for medical care — not moral judgment, not privacy intrusions," she says.

NRA lobbyists helped write a bill that largely bans health professionals from asking about guns. Hammer says she and other NRA members consider the questions an intrusion on their Second Amendment rights.

"This bill is about helping families who are complaining about being questioned about gun ownership, and the growing anti-gun political agenda being carried out in examination rooms by doctors and staffs," Hammer says.

It's not just questions in the examining room that lead the NRA to charge pediatricians with a political agenda. Out of concern for the high number of firearms injuries among children and adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics is also on record supporting gun control.

'More Children [Will Be] Injured And Killed'

In a compromise with another doctors' group, the Florida Medical Association, the NRA agreed to one exception to the ban: Doctors would be permitted to ask questions about guns in cases where they feel it's directly relevant to the patient's care or the safety of others.

Dr. Paul Robinson, a specialist in adolescent medicine, told a Florida Senate committee recently that that would allow doctors to counsel suicidal teens. But there are other cases, he said, where the law — and the doctor's options — are less clear.

"What if I have an adolescent who's been bullied, who's not suicidal?" he said. "I don't think, under the current bill, I'm entitled to ask him if there's a gun in the home, or if he's carried a gun to school, or if he's thinking of harming someone else with a gun."

Few of those who voted in favor of the bill spoke out, either in committee or on the floor. One who did was state Sen. Alan Hays, a retired dentist from Central Florida.

"It's none of my business what kind of weapons, if any weapons, you have in your home," he said. "When you come to see me, or you bring one of your children to see me, my obligation is to find out what medical things are pertinent to your particular situation."

Ultimately, both Florida's Senate and House agreed with the NRA and voted to approve the bill. For supporters of gun rights, it's another victory — one that St. Petery says will negatively affect pediatricians and their patients.

"Many pediatricians will think twice about asking about firearms and discussing firearms safety," he says. "What I think is going to happen is there'll be more children injured and killed from firearms in the home that are not properly stored."

Although Florida's Legislature is the first to approve the measure, it's also being considered in other states, including North Carolina and Alabama. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.