Doctor's orders. 

Court Protects Gun Owners From Common Sense

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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U.S. federal courts have issued two noteworthy rulings on guns in the past week. One is constitutionally significant: It overturns the District of Columbia's ban on carrying handguns outside the home, while showcasing the gun-rights movement's aggressive legal and political efforts to eliminate virtually all regulation. It may go all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices could potentially use it to establish ground rules for concealed and open carry.

The other case has all the gravity of a Daffy Duck cartoon. It exposes an insular gun culture, addled by paranoia and determined to shut itself off from even the most anodyne expressions of common sense. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a split ruling reversing a federal court decision and upholding Florida's "gun gag" law, which prohibits -- sort of -- physicians from inquiring whether a patient has firearms in the home. The legislation is such a sloppy mess that it's impossible to tell exactly what it does and doesn't forbid. Now, two judges on the appeals panel have added to the legal buffoonery.

"The Act seeks to protect patients' privacy by restricting irrelevant inquiry and record-keeping by physicians regarding firearms," the ruling states. OK. Then it gets weird: "It is no exaggeration to state that a patient may be in some cases essentially at the mercy of his or her physician."

In effect, the court ruled that when gun-owning adults are asked about firearm ownership by the race of superhumans known as doctors, they are powerless to resist. Really, no exaggeration. Doctors are expected to ask about your sex life, your relationship to illicit substances and how often you go to the bathroom. But for those delicate Floridians who own guns, being asked if they keep firearms in a gun locker is more trauma than they can bear. (And for those patients so seriously ill that a doctor holds the key to "mercy," firearms protocol is no doubt top of mind.)

The case stemmed from anecdotes of gun owners taking umbrage at routine questions, including the rote variety that appear on standard questionnaires issued by some physician offices. The emotional distress was so intense that the National Rifle Association begged the Florida legislature to intervene.

Why do these nosy docbots want to know about firearm ownership, anyway? For the same reason they ask about drug and alcohol use and the storage of poisons in homes with small children: They prefer living patients to dead ones. And 30,000 times a year in the U.S., a firearm doesn't just reduce a patient's life expectancy, it eliminates it. Earlier this month, a Florida three-year-old shot herself in the stomach with a loaded, unsecured gun in her home. Last month, a 15-year-old Florida boy died of a gunshot wound, apparently after playing with a similarly "accessible" gun. ("Child kills self with irresponsible parent's gun" is a story that never gets old in Florida.)

As a lengthy dissent, written by a flabbergasted Justice Charles Wilson, stated: "A vivid imagination is not required to think of the innumerable adverse health consequences that go along with unsafe firearm ownership."

Even Florida legislators, who seem to specialize in harebrained gun laws, appeared to grasp that logic. They added a condition to the law: Doctors could continue asking about firearm ownership in cases in which such a question was "relevant" to a patient's care. When is it relevant? No one, least of all Florida legislators or doctors, appears to know.

Physicians challenged the law on grounds that it's both unconstitutionally vague and a blatant, four-alarm abridgment of free speech (let alone professional responsibilities). But put aside the subjugation of the First Amendment to the Second, and other constitutional issues. How did a modest, discrete effort to limit morbidity and mortality ever inspire such an overblown reaction in the first place?

If you live in fear of being questioned about your conduct, or readily confuse common sense with condescension, you might be suffering from insecurities associated with dubious public policy positions. See your doctor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net