Florida’s gag order on pediatricians blocked

This past spring, I wasn’t sure if I was looking through a fun house mirror when I read that Florida pediatricians were going to face criminal charges for bringing up the topic of gun safety in the office with patients. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

The irony of the whole charade was the reasoning of those who brought about the bill. “Direct questions about firearm ownership when it has nothing to do with medical care is simply pushing a political agenda, which doesn’t belong in exam rooms,”  representative Jason Brodeur, one of the bill’s proponents,  recently said.

There is nothing so hard to stomach, to me, as reckless political spin. Regardless of your political leanings (and I hung a picture of George H.W. Bush on my bedroom door in eight grade), it was this outrageous NRA sponsored bill that injected politics into the exam room.

For years, pediatricians have asked questions about everything from sex and risky behavior to guns, smoking, and the social fabric of the home. Questions that may seem a bit too personal in other circumstances roll right off my tongue in the exam room. It doesn’t leave the room and it is not my job to judge. It is my job to offer counsel. If a teenager has made a mistake and engaged in drug use, we can talk about this. If a parent is smoking around a new baby, we can talk about this. If a child is riding a bike, we can talk about safety and helmets. And if there is a gun in the house, we can talk about the right and the wrong way to keep this stored, safely out of the hands of children.

This is not politics. I am the last person you will find pitching a ‘leftist agenda’ on people. This is about preventing accidents. It has absolutely nothing to do with my political stance on gun control.  While one person may be a very conscientious gun owner and may resent a pediatrician ‘nosing in,’ the next family may not be so careful and that friendly talk may prompt dad to go home and make some changes in how things are stored. It isn’t up to me to sort out who is who. It is my job to offer counsel at every opportunity.

Children are killed by guns on a daily basis. This is not up for debate. If a few people are offended but one parent thinks to lock a gun up and it prevents an accidental shooting, I can live with that.  But really, there is no reason to be offended. The only folks who get offended are the folks who want to be offended, who have their own political agenda. Most conscientious gun owners have no problem reviewing gun safety, because it is a serious subject and one that should be emphasized in front of children. It is a chance to teach, not to be outraged.

Luckily, sanity and the U.S. Constitution seem to be winning out over an Orwellian form of government intrusion into the doctor patient relationship. U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke has just blocked enforcement of the new law, arguing that it impinges on the right to free speech. I was starting to wonder what was going on down there. Today I breathed a little sigh of relief.

Am I taking this too seriously? After all, I’m not actually anti-gun and I know plenty of folks who own a firearm.

I really don’t think so. I think what horrified me was the idea that there could be laws limiting what topics I am allowed to bring up in a confidential office visit, that criminal charges could be filed against me for discussing a safety issue. This particular topic doesn’t come up all that often in truth. How is this law any different from a tobacco lobby demanding a criminal gag order on doctors who bring up the topic of smoking?

It isn’t different at all. Gun ownership and tobacco use are both perfectly legal. Both can sometimes lead to death. Not everyone who smokes will develop lung cancer or heart disease.  Not every infant of a mother who smokes during pregnancy will die of SIDS. This doesn’t mean I can be gagged and my discussion of these risk factors in a doctor patient interview made criminal. The idea that I could not bring up smoking, could not ask about smoking, as a physician would be enough to make me quietly pack up and renounce my citizenship. The principle is exactly the same.

In America you have the right to be offended, if you want to waste your time being offended, by questions asked by a health care provider. Thankfully, I still have the right to ask those questions without worry of some McCarthy era inquisition coming down on me. Thank you Judge Cooke for reassuring me that I still live in America.

Matthew Toohey is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatrician Next Door.

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