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Leslie GerwinBack to OpinionLeslie Gerwin

Gun rights vs women’s rights

It is particularly perverse to see some legislators allow interest groups, such as pro gun and anti-abortion rights lobbies, to dictate their understanding of how best to protect the public’s health.

Take, for example, the Florida legislators who passed the Firearms Owners Privacy Act. This Act prohibits physicians from inquiring about patients’ gun use and / or ownership. Medical associations opposing the bill called it “physician gag law.” When it comes to guns, Florida lawmakers found that protecting a patient’s privacy trumps both the physician’s judgment and First Amendment rights.

When the patients are pregnant women, however, the same legislators have taken the inverse position on privacy rights.  The same legislature passed a bill compelling physicians to recite a speech designed to discourage a woman from exercising her constitutionally protected right, while subjecting their patient, who has made the difficult decision to terminate her pregnancy, to a medically unnecessary sonogram. In other words, lawmakers believed gun owners have constitutional rights worthy of protection, but pregnant women do not.

Although in both cases legislators disregarded the physicians’ First Amendment rights, only in the case challenging the prohibition on gun inquiry did a federal appeals court find a violation of the First Amendment. Apparently oblivious to the benefits of a physician’s discussion about gun safety with a patient, Florida is appealing the court’s ruling. Ironically, in the challenge to a Texas sonogram law similar to Florida’s, the federal court failed to find that the compelled speech violated the constitution. Judge Edith Jones agreed that the legislators’ could lawfully protect women from the potential “devastating psychological consequences” of later discovering that “her decision was not fully informed.”

It turns out that many members of Congress have a similarly skewed vision of health; they are willing to assure the rights of gun owners but not necessarily those of women. The Affordable Care Act includes a section entitled “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights,” in which wellness programs are prohibited from inquiring about gun ownership or use. The protection also prevents insurers from counting gun use as a risk factor in setting health premiums. While no one suggested excluding gun shot wounds from coverage, the issues around coverage for women’s reproductive health needs were hotly debated. To ensure passage of the historic Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, legislators compromised protecting women’s privacy rights and access to reproductive health services..

It should be noted, Congress has not gone as far as states in constraining physicians from counseling patients on gun safety or in restricting women’s access to reproductive services. Nevertheless, in both cases, legislators have abdicated their responsibility to protect the public’s health. Succumbing to interest groups, with narrow agendas based on a misreading of the Constitution, elected officials view gun safety as an infringement on the Second Amendment. The hypocrisy of prohibiting measures to protect the public from gun misuse and abuse while claiming that pregnant women need an additional layer of protection is astonishing.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, some legislators are finding continued fealty to the gun lobby uncomfortable.  Even NRA members acknowledge that opposing all gun safety legislation may be politically unwise. Unfortunately, the NRA’s newest proposal to station armed guards in schools appears designed to maintain gun ownership- if not increase gun sales. Addressing school shootings by increasing the potential for shootouts does little to end the pervasive crisis of gun violence in the U.S. While proposals to ban automatic weapons are important, we should encourage everyone to participate in promoting safety and health initiatives.

In at least one respect, the current gun debate and the continuing controversy over women’s health have now reached a crossroads. With the gun lobby seeking legal protections to preserve the gun market and the anti-abortion lobby seeking laws to prevent women from harming themselves, what, if anything, can lawmakers be expected to do about the availability of pink semi-automatic rifles?

Leslie Gerwin is the Associate Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She teaches public health law and policy as an Adjunct Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.