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Aaron Sharockman
By Aaron Sharockman February 1, 2011

Florida lawmaker suggests doctors can use gun information against you

A freshman Florida lawmaker is grabbing national headlines for sponsoring a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to ask their patients if they own guns.

State Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, has filed HB 155, the Privacy of Firearms Owners Act, which seeks to punish doctors with fines up to a $5 million for asking a patient or a patient's family about gun ownership and gun habits. The proposal is a reaction to American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, which encourage physicians to counsel parents on creating a safe home environment and offering advice to avoid preventable accidents. The long list of recommendations includes mainly innocuous tips like "Keep plastic bags and balloons away from your children," and "NEVER place an infant in front of an air bag."

Physicians also are encouraged to tell parents to remove guns from places where children live and play.

"More than 5,000 children and adolescents are killed by gunfire each year -- injuries almost always inflicted by themselves, a sibling or a friend," the doctor's group says as part of suggested counseling for parents. "Handguns are especially dangerous. If you choose to keep a gun at home, store it unloaded in a locked place. Lock and store the ammunition in a separate place."

Brodeur says the advice is out of bounds and that it infringes on people's privacy protections. The controversial measure has proven fodder for CNN's Anderson Cooper.

But what has so far been left out of the debate is Brodeur's suggestion that his bill could have even more privacy implications because of the passage of the federal health care overhaul in 2010. The law is now facing an aggressive court challenge.

Speaking to the Fort Myers News-Press, Brodeur said he's concerned about doctors asking patients about guns in the home and then allowing that information to get into the hands of the government or insurance companies.

"What we don't want to do is have law-abiding firearm owners worried that the information is going to be recorded and then sent to their insurance company," Brodeur said. "If the overreaching federal government actually takes over health care, they're worried that Washington, D.C., is going to know whether or not they own a gun and so this is really just a privacy protection."

The federal health care law is 974 pages long -- long enough for important details to get sometimes overlooked (we like this one) and long enough for outrageous claims (like here, and here, and our favorite, here.)

We wondered where Brodeur's claim fit in.

The health care law and guns

So much can be revealed by simply reading the health care law, formally called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Or if that's too much -- just try searching for keywords. We accessed the final version of the law through the White House's web site.

Then we searched for the word "gun."

Here's what we found: "(c) PROTECTION OF SECOND AMENDMENT GUN RIGHTS." So we read on.

The gun provision of the law has two main thrusts -- that no one in the government can use the health care law to collect gun information and that insurance companies cannot adjust their rates because someone owns a gun.

"A premium rate may not be increased, health insurance coverage may not be denied, and a discount, rebate, or reward offered for participation in a wellness program may not be reduced or withheld under any health benefit plan issued pursuant to or in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or an amendment made by that Act on the basis of, or on reliance upon -- (A) the lawful ownership or possession of a firearm or ammunition; or (B) the lawful use or storage of a firearm or ammunition," the law reads in part.

That gun language was added by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid specifically to placate gun owners, who argued that the health care law could be used as a way for the federal government to create a national gun registry or charge gun owners more for insurance. So to avoid any (more) backlash about the law, Reid included a provision to further protect gun owners from either seeing their insurance rates increase, or from having their names collected and entered into some federal gun owner database.

"In the face of all this abuse, Senator Reid was pressured by Gun Owners of America and his constituents into making a face-saving move," the lobbying group Gun Owners of America wrote on its blog. "He wanted to silence the pro-gun community’s objections, so he took steps to strip the bill of any gun rights concerns."

More on a gun registry

The health care law cannot be used to collect gun data, and it cannot be used to raise the insurance premiums of gun owners. But we wanted to step back and ask an even more basic question. Does the federal government keep a database of gun owners as Brodeur is asserting?

"There is no national firearms registry," said Jim Wright, a gun policy expert who teaches at the University of Central Florida.

William J. Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University Sacramento who spent 27 years working for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, agreed. The government does track some high-powered weapons like machine guns, grenades and short-barreled shotguns but not common firearms like handguns and rifles. There is no searchable database, and records are kept with gun dealers, Vizzard said.

Some states do register firearms, said Daniel Vice, a senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. But not Florida.

"To say this is a response to Obamacare would be less accurate than to say this is in response to a more general problem going on long before Obamacare," added David Kopel, research director of the conservative-leaning Independence Institute and an adjunct professor of law at the University of Denver.

Kopel said he believes the real issue is with the proliferation of electronic medical records, which means that if a doctor asks a patient about guns, a permanent electronic record will be created and maintained. And though that record cannot be expressly used by insurance companies or the government, the record exists.

His point might be worth discussing. But in this case, it's not what we're checking.

Our ruling

We left a message with Brodeur's legislative office, but did not hear back.

Brodeur told the News-Press that his bill -- which would prevent doctors from asking patients if they own a gun -- was crafted to combat privacy concerns resulting from the passage of the federal health care law.

It turns out Brodeur's trying to right a "wrong" that isn't wrong.

The health care law included specific protections for gun owners -- so they wouldn't see insurance premium increases and their information wouldn't be included in a gun owner database or registry. We find this claim False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Fort Myers News-Press, "Florida bill would bar doctors from gun questions," Jan. 16, 2011

Florida HB 155, accessed Feb. 1, 2011

American Academy of Pediatrics, A Guide to Safety Counseling, accessed Feb. 1, 2011

PolitiFact, "Gun-rights group says health care bill could harm gun owners," Oct. 20, 2009

Slate, "A fringe group muzzles health insurers on gun ownership," Dec. 20, 2009

Gun Owners of America, Gun Owners of America Wins a Skirmish on ObamaCare, Dec. 23, 2009

American Medical News, "Physicians, gun owners tangle over Florida "don't ask" gun bill," Jan. 31, 2011

Ocala Star-Banner, "Family and pediatrician tangle over gun question," July 24, 2010

E-mail interview with Jim Wright, a gun policy expert who teaches at the University of Central Florida, Jan. 31, 2011

E-mail interview with William J. Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University Sacramento, Jan. 31, 2011

E-mail interview with Daniel Vice, a senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Jan. 31, 2011

Interview with David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, Jan. 31, 2011

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (health care bill), accessed Feb. 1, 2011

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