Should pediatricians ask parents about guns at home?

Half of children either live in or regularly visit a household with a gun, according to a recent study. Yet many pediatricians are unsure what they are legally allowed to tell parents about gun safety.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
Gun safety and suicide prevention brochures on display next to guns for sale at a retail gun store in Montrose Colo., in Feburary.

One of the biggest potential hazards for a curious child is a firearm within reach, but many pediatricians are not sure what, if anything, they can ask parents about firearms in the home.

A new study indicates that about half of the children examined spent time in homes that had firearms, even if there were no guns present in their own homes. The study argues that the hazards associated with firearms are great enough to merit screening parents about the presence of guns in their own homes at the doctor's office.

“A conversation about firearm safety needs to happen between parents and physicians, but it is not,” said the study’s first author, Jane M. Garbutt, a medical doctor and a professor of medicine and pediatrics, in a press release from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Physicians are concerned about offending and losing patients, and in many states, physicians face legal restrictions.”

It may seem strange to talk guns during a routine medical visit, but the American Academy of Pediatrics, the largest pediatric publishing program in the world, has long made gun violence prevention a priority, according to its website. While the organization does not speak for all pediatricians, it is an influential voice for research, gun control, violence prevention programs, and physician counseling on gun safety.

The new study, conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine, is the latest step by pediatricians to ensure children's safety around guns.

According to the study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, 1,246 parents answered a range of questions on gun safety. Of the respondents, 36 percent said that there were firearms in their homes, and another 14 percent said that their children visited homes of gun-owning friends or relatives on a regular basis.

In the United States, eight children or teenagers are killed by guns every day, the CDC reported in February, mostly by accident.

Even so, several states, including Florida, have banned routine gun questioning by doctors. Those who break the ban in Florida could be subject to a fine or the loss of their medical licenses. The law is currently under litigation.

The main point of concern for laws like Florida's is that doctors could use their position of authority to push an anti-Second Amendment point of view on patients. But for Dr. Garbutt, it is simply a question of safety.

"A lot of children die every year because of needless injuries – because of their curiosity. Pediatricians are not firearm safety experts for the most part, but they are experts on childhood development," she told Kaiser Health News. "Parents look to their pediatricians as their most trusted source of information about a lot of things."

Even in states where open talk about gun safety is allowed, the study found, many doctors do not feel comfortable discussing gun safety with parents for fear of offending them. Many pediatricians are alsu unsure about the legal boundaries of such discussions.

Garbutt argues that a systematic clarification of what pediatricians can say on the subject would be beneficial. Of the surveyed parents, 75 percent agreed that pediatricians should be able to give advice about the safe storage of guns at home.

"The key to effective communication may be to avoid direct questioning about firearm ownership and instead to focus on ensuring safe storage of firearms to all parents," Garbutt told Newswise. "If we treat firearm safety like we do other safety-proofing precautions, it removes judgment."

Garbutt also said that discussion of firearm safety at the doctor's office would also lead to more openness with discussing firearm safety with other parents, raising awareness about the importance of protecting curious children from guns.

"If we can get to this comfort level discussing firearms, it may decrease childhood injuries and death,” she said.

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