A pediatrician who asks a child's parent about firearms in their home could lose his or her license or be disciplined under legislation being considered by a Senate committee today.
The bill would prohibit health care professionals from asking a patient about gun possession, ownership or storage unless the patient is being treated for an injury related to guns or asks for safety counseling about them.
This legislation is supported by the NRA. Professor Volokh indicates that usually speech codes like this are unconstitutional, but are probably constitutional when imposed on professional-client speech. Many medical groups have gotten into the political fray about questions that are large policy questions, instead of direct health questions. Gun ownership is one of those issues as the American Academy of Pediatrics has an anti-gun policy. In many respects it is understandable that many citizens would be concerned about attempts by doctors to impose their values onto them. But I question whether regulating professional-client speech in this way is a sensible solution. It appears that when one has a problem with speech, then the solution is more speech, including voting with your feet by going someplace else.
According to my reading of the language of the law, I could imagine a mental health professional running afoul of the law in the following situation. A teenage patient is referred for evaluation for several beahvior problems in school and elsewhere. Included in the problems reported are various communications of the teenager suggestive of potential violence although the youngster has not been violent to date (e.g., draws a picture of self shooting a teacher among other things). As part of an evaluation, it seems reasonable for the mental health professional to ask about whether the family owns firearms and what safety precautions the family takes concerning their use or availability and whether the youngster has access to them and has communicated some interest in using them outside of parental or adult supervision, etc. In fact if a youngster were to commit a violent act with a firearm and had seen a therapist prior to the event, all kinds of people would wonder, did you even ask whether the kid had access to guns or whether the family had any?. It would be quite something if the professional has to say, "Well, it was illegal for me to do that so I sent him to the school nurse who could legally give him condoms instead. We were hoping he might express his shooting feelings in other ways."
It seems that one can be fully supportive of the 2nd Ammendment and also be supportive of limited government. Do we really want the Nanny State to regulate speech in this way? Will this grow to become McCain-Feingold part deux? If doctors were actually as influential as some people think they are, wouldn't we have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc?