[UPDATE] Doctors Fight NRA, While Guns on Campus Bill Stalls

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

[UPDATE] 3-23 11:32am --

A controversial bill aimed at preventing doctors from asking patients about gun ownership remained stalled Tuesday, March 22 in the Senate Health Regulation Committee.

Committee Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, postponed a vote on the bill (SB 432), which is backed by gun-rights groups but opposed by doctors. The committee also tabled the measure last week. Garcia said he is trying to work out a compromise. "What's the sticking point?'' he said after the meeting. "We're trying to make everyone happy.

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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 22, 2011 --

Emergency room doctors, psychiatrists and pediatricians should not be able to ask a patient whether he or she owns a gun, a panel of Florida lawmakers said Tuesday, giving the OK to a proposal that pits two of the state’s most politically powerful lobbying interests – the National Rifle Association and the Florida Medical Association – against each other.

The Senate Criminal Justice Association approved on a 4-1 vote a bill to bar doctors from asking patients whether they own guns, unless the doctor believes a patient may immediately harm him or herself with a gun. If doctors were to question a patient about gun ownership, they would face substantial fines under the bill.

“It gives patients the right to refuse to answer questions that are inappropriate,” said Florida NRA lobbyist and former National NRA President Marion Hammer.

The bill, which originally would have fined doctors $5 million for asking patients about gun ownership, was stripped of its original language and amended to create a tiered fine system for violators. An offending doctor would be charged $10,000 for the first offense, at least $25,000 for the second offense, and a minimum of $100,000 for the third offense.

Hammer said some doctors are injecting politics into medical care and that when the NRA asked the FMA to address it, no action was taken. So, it began pushing for legislation.

“It’s about politics,” she said. “Pure, raw, anti-gun politics being imposed on patients when they are most vulnerable, when they are sick or hurt and need help.”

Doctors have pushed back though, saying the restrictions the bill puts on medical personnel hampers their ability to treat and protect patients.

Dr. Vidor Friedman, the president-elect of the Florida College of Emergency Medicine, told lawmakers that doctors often need to question patients in the course of treatment to ensure they are not in danger of being further injured. Particularly in domestic abuse cases, he said, doctors are often trying to ascertain whether a patient feels safe.

“I don’t care if you own a gun or not,” Friedman said. “The question is, is the gun still a risk to you.”

With children, doctors are also worried, said Dr. Louis St. Petery, a Leon County pediatrician who is executive vice president of the Florida Chapter of American Pediatrics and a member of the FMA. The issue, he said, wasn’t whether families owned a gun, it was whether children had access to it.

“Our issue is if you have a gun, let’s talk about how to properly store that gun so that children don’t get accidentally shot and killed,” he said.

But for several members of the committee, it came down to a matter of privacy. Lawmakers largely said they couldn’t understand why doctors would need to ask about guns, even if it involved a criminal action.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who has generally supported gun control legislation, said he was looking for a reason to vote against the bill, but couldn’t figure out why doctors would need to ask whether their patients own guns.

“That would be a question more for law enforcement,” Smith said. “I don’t see why the doctor has to be involved in that.”

The bill (SB 432) also must pass the Senate Health Regulation, Judiciary and Budget committees.

GUNS ON CAMPUS

Following the tearful testimony of Robert Cowie, a Jacksonville resident whose daughter Ashley was killed in an accidental shooting at Florida State University in January, lawmakers postponed a vote on another gun bill (SB 234) that would let colleges and universities, and private elementary and secondary schools, allow firearms to be carried on campus.

Currently, the law says people with concealed weapon permits can carry guns, but includes a list of places where carrying those guns isn’t allowed, including school campuses. The measure would remove that particular exemption from the law.

Backers have said in the wake of a number of school shootings that if some law abiding student had been armed, they may have been able to shoot back.

But Cowie said putting guns in an area where drugs and alcohol are commonly used is particularly dangerous, and makes campuses more dangerous.

Ashley Cowie, 20, was at a campus party when a gun held by another student accidentally discharged, sending a bullet directly through her chest. Her father traveled to Tallahassee Tuesday to lobby against the bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.

“This is not a second amendment, right-to-bear arms issue,” he said.

Several states around the country have considered letting college students and university staff carry guns. The idea was prominent following high profile shootings at Virginia Tech University in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states allow individual colleges and universities to enact policies related to carrying guns on campus, while 24 states, including Florida, ban carrying a concealed weapon on campus.

A Florida Board of Governors spokeswoman said via e-mail that the police department chiefs in the 11-member state university system are opposed to lifting the ban in Florida.

“This issue clearly affects the core responsibility of respective university police departments, as each one works diligently to maintain campus security and safety around the clock,” said board spokeswoman Kelly Layman.

The bill does have at least one high profile supporter. Gov. Rick Scott told reporters that he is in favor of the bill, citing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“I believe it’s a fundamental right and I will defend the right to bear arms,” he said.


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