MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Florida law limiting what doctors can say about guns to their patients, saying it violated free speech protections under the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state and Governor Rick Scott, a Tea Party-backed Republican and former healthcare executive, from enforcing the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act with immediate effect.
The law took effect in June and was believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Florida has some of the most liberal firearms laws anywhere in the United States and vigorously protects private gun ownership.
With all but a few exceptions, the Florida law barred doctors from questioning their patients about guns in their homes or from having discussions with them about firearms safety.
Gun rights supporters had argued that such questioning from doctors violated their right to privacy.
But in her written argument granting the injunction, Cooke reasoned that the law also "chilled" free speech.
"This case concerns one of our Constitution's most precious rights -- the freedom of speech," she said.
"The law curtails practitioners' ability to inquire about whether patients own firearms and burdens their ability to deliver a firearm safety message to patients," Cooke said.
"The Firearm Owners' Privacy Act thus implicates practitioners' First Amendment rights of free speech," she said. Just as importantly, Cooke said the law "implicates patients' freedom to receive information about firearms safety, which the First Amendment protects."
Attorneys with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence were among those who pushed for the ruling blocking the Florida gag law, and the Washington-based group called the decision a breakthrough in efforts to limit the risks posed by firearms.
"We are pleased that the court has blocked the gun lobby's outrageous and unconstitutional attempt to stop doctors from warning about the severe risks posed by guns in the home," Dennis Henigan, acting president of the Brady Center, said in a statement.
"With more than 4,000 children and teens shot in gun accidents every year, it is crucial that doctors be able to warn parents that guns in the home pose a serious risk of injury or death," he said.
Plaintiffs in the case included the Florida chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
In her ruling, Cooke noted those groups published practice guidelines and policy statements recommending that doctors routinely provide counseling and guidance on the prevention of injuries, including automotive safety and firearms safety.
"Information regarding firearm ownership is not sacrosanct," Cooke wrote in her ruling. "Federal and state statues heavily regulate firearm ownership, possession and sale and require firearm owners to provide personal information in certain circumstances."
Opponents of the law said it subjected healthcare providers to possible sanctions, including fines and loss of license, if they discussed or recorded information in a patient's chart about firearms safety that a medical board later determined to be irrelevant or "unnecessarily harassing."
Editing by Pascal Fletcher, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney