Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Proof-positive of how absurd the gun debate has become

Let's talk a bit about the fanaticism of the gun-rights movement and the cowardice of American politicians in standing up to their lunacy. And let's begin with the story of an 11-year-old girl who was having lunch at a Newnan restaurant with her family Sunday when she was wounded in a shooting incident.

The person who pulled the trigger? Her 2-year-old brother, who found their mother's pistol in her purse.

In that particular case, the injuries weren't fatal, but many aren't that lucky. According to research by the Associated Press and USA Today, a child is killed in an accidental shooting every other day in this country. Such shootings "most often happen at the children’s homes, with handguns legally owned by adults for self-protection," the investigation found. Furthermore, "states in the Deep South, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia, are among those with the highest per capita rates of accidental shootings involving minors."

A quick Google search confirms that this month alone, such child-involved accidents have occurred in Fort Valley, Ga., Jasper County, Ga., California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, New Mexico, West Virginia, Indiana, Idaho, Mississippi and Florida, where an 8-year-old in Jacksonville accidentally shot and killed his 5-year-old sister.

As a result of such tragedies, groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that their members ask about gun ownership as part of a safety checklist for their patients, just as they ask about storage of prescription medicines or toxic materials. They'll ask about the presence of guns in the home, where the weapons are stored, whether they are stored loaded or unloaded, whether the firearm and ammunition are stored separately.

In Florida, however, gun-fetish groups such as the National Rifle Association decided that such questions somehow posed an intolerable threat to the Second Amendment. In 2011, they pushed a compliant state Legislature into passing a law that forbids physicians from even asking such questions, with the potential loss of their medical license as punishment for those doctors who violated the law.

Supporters of the law brushed aside arguments that this supposed threat to the Second Amendment couldn't begin to justify a direct, significant violation of the First Amendment. They didn't care when opponents pointed out that they were directly intruding into the sanctity of the patient-doctor relationship. And they simply didn't give a damn that as a result of their law, the lives of young children would probably be put at greater risk by parents who did not know or hadn't given sufficient attention to proper storage of their weapons.

It has taken a while, but that law has now been struck down. The Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that by making a particular type of speech illegal, Florida's so-called "Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act" violates the First Amendment.

"Florida, perhaps guided by a paternalistic notion that it needs to protect its citizens from viewpoints they do not like, prohibits doctors from discussing an entire topic and advocating a position with which it does not agree," one judge wrote.  "This it cannot do."

As the court also drily noted, "The Second Amendment right to own and possess firearms does not preclude questions about, commentary on, or criticism for the exercise of that right."

While the circuit court's ruling is welcome and clearly correct on constitutional grounds, it should have been unnecessary. The very idea that government should make discussion of firearms illegal between doctors and patients is or ought to be ludicrous on its face, yet the fanaticism and political power of the gun lobby forces such nonsense into law. Had Florida's legislation been upheld, you can bet that copycat versions would have started popping up in legislatures around the country, including here in Georgia, and they would have been difficult to stop.

It's madness, but it demonstrates just how unbalanced the debate over such issues has become.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.