Dr. Judy Schaechter says she knows that asking a patient about gun ownership can save a life.
The interim chair of pediatrics at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine said when she learned from a teenager that he owned gun, it led to other questions and a surprising revelation.
"He was trying to get out of a gang, and I was able to help him get out of a very difficult and life-threatening situation," she said.
Schaechter is one of several doctors challenging the constitutionality of a state law banning doctors from asking their patients about firearms in the case dubbed "Docs vs. Glocks" raising First and Second Amendment issues.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami sided with the physicians a year ago, finding the Firearm Owners' Privacy Act passed in 2011 was unconstitutionally vague and violated doctors' right to free speech.
Florida appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, arguing it was not impeding anyone's free speech.
On Thursday, Schaechter and fellow physicians sat in the gallery of a federal courtroom to watch the issue play out in arguments before a three-judge appellate panel in Miami.
Arguing for the state, Solicitor General Allen Winsor said doctors had nothing to worry about. He insisted the portion of the law addressing doctor queries on guns was only advisory and the state has no designs to enforce it.
When the judges asked why such a law should be on the books, Winsor replied, "There is a point in the Legislature expressing its will, its preferences."
Doctors counter that the law states they could lose their medical licenses and be subject up to a $10,000 fine per violation.
Judge Gerald Tjoflat unexpectedly inserted the Affordable Care Act into the hearing. Conceding he hasn't read the voluminous federal law, he noted the health care overhaul called for the consolidation of medical records. He seemed worried that records of doctor-patient conversations about guns would fall into government hands.
"In a way that would make doctors agents of the government," said Tjoflat, who was at times appeared visibly angry during the hearing.
His concerns were not addressed by the Legislature and were not a central issue in the legal briefs.
Attorney Doug Hallward-Driemeier, who is representing the physicians challenging the law, said privacy laws would protect patient-doctor confidentiality.
In a sharp retort, Tjoflat said, "Privacy? It's going to go to the government."
The judge took note of recent headline-making stories about intelligence gathering on Americans by the National Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service.
He said it appeared doctors were under the illusion that they have the power of law enforcement and can eliminate gun ownership.
Hallward-Driemeier, a partner at Ropes & Gray in Washington, sought to redirect the judges' attention to the First Amendment.
He said the pro-gun Florida Legislature viewed a ban on doctors asking their patients about gun safety as a political attack and maintained the law constitutes the very essence of a freedom of speech violation.
Winsor said doctors as licensed professionals have more restricted free speech than someone voicing an opinion on the street corner.
But Judge Charles R. Wilson, another panelist, said, "This is a classic case of content-based restriction of speech."
Also on the appellate panel was U.S. District Judge Lawrence Scott Coogler from the Northern District of Alabama.
He appeared to side with Tjoflat's point of view, expressing surprise when Hallward-Driemeier said fears that the government would co-opt medical records to find out who owns firearms as "irrational."
After the hearing, Schaechter and several other physicians discussed the issues presented on appeal. They said there is no law or provision in the federal health care law requiring them to turn over medical records to the federal government to feed a gun registry.
The appellate judges repeatedly asked Hallward-Driemeier about doctors routinely asking about gun ownership on questionnaires for new patients.
UM stopped the practice out of fear that its doctors could lose losing their licenses under the state law.
Dr. Mobeen H. Rathore, a professor at the University of Florida Center for AIDS/HIV Research, said the questionnaire leads to a talk about gun safety.
"Our patients don't even know you can have safety locks," he said. "If you don't ask the questions, you can't give the appropriate advice to the family."