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Pediatricians say gun privacy bill would muzzle them

Posted over 7 years ago by Rosemary Liguori

By Stacey Singer
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 1:59 p.m. Saturday, April 23, 2011
Posted: 6:11 p.m. Friday, April 22, 2011

The first funeral Dr. Louis St. Petery attended as a young doctor was for a 2-year-old.

His tiny patient's 5-year-old sibling had discovered a loaded handgun in dad's bedside table, aimed it at the toddler and pulled the trigger.

"That made quite an impression," said St. Petery, a pediatric cardiologist.

It's standard practice now for pediatricians to ask safety questions of parents: Is there a pool in the home? Do you have car seats and use seat belts? Do you have a gun in the house, and if so, is it locked up, with ammunition stored and locked separately?

The Florida Legislature is poised to pass a bill that would restrict doctors' ability to ask such questions.

The bills have passed all committees and the House is expected to vote Tuesday, and the Senate may soon follow.

Referred to by the National Rifle Association as the "Patient's Gun Privacy Rights" legislation, the bills say a health professional cannot ask about gun ownership unless they have a good medical reason, and they may not enter facts about gun ownership into the medical record, "if the practitioner knows that such information is not relevant to the patient's medical care or safety, or the safety of others."

St. Petery said the legislature is favoring the Second Amendment right to bear arms over the First Amendment freedom of speech.

"I think we as physicians are within our rights to discuss any issue we deem appropriate," he said.

In an alert to its members, the NRA said the bill addresses patients' concern that computerized medical records will be used by the government, or by insurance companies intent on denying health care coverage to the owners of firearms.

To doctors like St. Petery, who say they're asking about guns simply to prevent accidental injury, the NRA's thinking is paranoid. In response, the NRA tells its members that they have every right to be paranoid about doctors and medical staff, who cause six times more accidental deaths through medical errors than firearms do, according to CDC figures.

"Physicians have plenty of room to work in their own back yards to stop accidental deaths in keeping with their 'first do no harm' medical oaths," the NRA said.

The bill was a response, in part, to a news story that appeared last summer in the Ocala Star-Banner newspaper. A doctor asked Amber Ullman to find another physician after she was offended and angered by the "do you have a gun in your home" question.

"Whether I have a gun has nothing to do with the health of my child," the 26-year-old mom of three told the newspaper. "It's a very invasive and personal question."

St. Petery says there's nothing personal about the question. He has a gun in his own home.

But the fact is, injuries are the leading cause of death of people ages 1 to 44, and emergency room data shows that shooting deaths are the second highest cause of injuries among those ages 10 to 24, behind car accidents.

Suicide by firearms was the fourth leading cause of injury for those over age 15.

He knows that 40 percent of families have a gun at home. Studies show that keeping those guns locked and ammunition properly stored and locked in a separate location reduces the chance that a gun will be improperly used. So by having the conversation, lives can be saved, he said.

"The best treatment for diseases is prevention, not treating it after it happens. With injuries, it's the same thing, prevention is much more effective," he said. "We as pediatricians have a hard time treating death."

The original versions of the bills, HB 155 and SB 432, would have imposed fines of up to $10,000 and criminal penalties of up to five years in prison for improperly handling information about gun ownership, he said. A compromised worked out between the NRA and the Florida Medical Association simply raises the possibility of medical board discipline, and allows doctors to ask about guns if they feel the question is relevant to the patient's medical care.

St. Petery, who is executive vice president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Tallahassee, says the FMA is at odds with his group. The watered-down version of the bill now accepted by the medical association still holds serious consequences for doctors, and he predicted it will have a chilling effect.

"You are going to have to get an attorney, and there's going to be an increase in what it costs you for malpractice insurance," he said. "Few physicians understand the difference between a penalty that is criminal verses referring you to the Florida Board of Medicine."

stacey_singer@pbpost.com

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