A federal appeals court has upheld the state's controversial "docs vs. glocks" bill, overturning an earlier court ruling that had blocked part of the law from being enforced.
In a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the state Legislature had the right to pass the law, which includes provisions restricting doctors and other medical providers from asking questions about gun ownership during medical visits.
"In order to protect patients, physicians have for millennia been subject to codes of conduct that define the practice of good medicine and affirm the responsibility physicians bear," Judge Gerald Tjoflat wrote. "In keeping with these traditional codes of conduct -- which almost universally mandate respect for patient privacy -- the Act simply acknowledges that the practice of good medicine does not require interrogation about irrelevant, private matters."
The majority found that the National Rifle Association-backed law, known as the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, "has only an incidental effect on physicians speech."
The appeals court rejected a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke, who ruled last year that the law was built largely on anecdotal evidence, and that legislators couldn't prove that gun rights would be jeopardized or that patients who own firearms might face discrimination.
Supporters of the 2011 law say doctors might turn away patients who own guns or who wouldn't answer questions about whether they did. Critics argue that doctors need to know what's in a patient's home so they can offer safety advice.
In a sharp dissent significantly longer than the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Charles Wilson said the law was an unconstitutional "gag order" that infringes on doctors' rights.
"The holding reached today is unprecedented, as it essentially says that all licensed professionals have no First Amendment rights when they are speaking to their clients or patients in private," Wilson said. "This in turn says that patients have no First Amendment right to receive information from licensed professionals -- a frightening prospect."
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the law, said in a statement that his organization was "astounded" by the ruling.
"Todays decision will keep doctors from asking reasonable questions and providing advice that could very well save lives," Simon said. "We expect the doctors who filed this case to appeal this decision and that this decision will ultimately be overturned."
The doctors could seek a full appellate court review or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.