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FL Physician: Asking About Guns Worth the Risk

Analysis  |  By Debra Shute  
   June 30, 2016

"The Orlando massacre is prima facie evidence that there's a gun problem not only in this state, but in this country," says one Florida pediatrician.

The first patient funeral Louis St. Petery, MD, attended as a new pediatrician in the late 1970s was for a child who had been accidentally shot by a sibling who found a loaded handgun in their parents' bedside table.

"That should have never happened. That gun should have been properly stored," he told me from his Tallahassee office last week.

Although pediatric visits have evolved over the last three decades to include a wealth of life-saving anticipatory guidance on risks such as swimming pools, household chemicals, and improper car seat use, there's a political taboo around physicians asking patients about gun ownership.

At the center of the controversy, is Florida's 2011 Firearm Owners' Privacy Act, known as the  "gun gag law," which has not been enforced since U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke issued a permanent injunction on June 29, 2012.

Last week, the state's 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held an en banc hearing on the issue again.

There's no telling when or how the court will rule, St. Petery says, but he is certain that he'll counsel parents about gun storage and safety regardless of the outcome.

He says he asks parents about guns not in an attempt to jeopardize their second amendment right to bear arms, but simply to keep children safe.

St. Petery, served as executive vice president for the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics for 36 years, until stepping down last June.

"I disagree with the NRA [National Rifle Association]. We're not out to get rid of guns, but we are out to save kids," he says.

St. Petery agrees with the American Medical Association's renewed stance that gun violence is a public health crisis.

"The Orlando massacre is prima facie evidence that there's a gun problem not only in this state, but in this country," he says.

A Nonexistent Debate

The AMA has, since 1989, held a policy that encourages members to inquire into the presence of firearms in households and to promote the use of safety locks on guns in an effort to reduce injuries to children.

It continues to argue against the gun gag law.

"For doctors to do all they can to prevent the public health crisis of gun violence from continuing in Florida, the state should drop its defense of a law that stifles relevant medical discussions that are proven to save lives," AMA President Andrew W. Gurman, MD, said in a media statement on June 21.

An irony of this ongoing debate is that, in practical terms, there isn't one, according to St. Petery.

Throughout his decades of practice in the avid hunting community of North Florida, the total number of parents who ever became upset about being asked gun ownership is almost zero.

And fellow physicians? Little to no argument from them either. "Virtually every pediatrician in the state of Florida shares my opinion," he says.

"The only pediatricians who seem reluctant are the younger ones newer in practice who aren't sure about this whole issue. They want to ask but they're afraid," St. Petery says.

"All of the seasoned pediatricians have said, 'The heck with it. Even if the law holds, I'm going to do the right thing by the kid.'"

And should a gun question cause offense?

"If they want charge me, if they want to complain to the board of medicine: Go ahead; do it," St. Petery says. "I think that's the attitude of the vast majority of folks that I have spoken to about this issue."

Debra Shute is the Senior Physicians Editor for HealthLeaders Media.

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