Let's Talk Guns: Doctors Should Discuss Firearm Safety with Parents
Doctors have a right and a responsibility to discuss firearm safety with parents, according to an online article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Given the large number of homes with guns and children in the United States, such a discussion should be part of a comprehensive preventive health care plan for children.
Thousands of US children die from guns each year
According to the lead author of the new article, Eric Fleegler, MD, MPH, of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, “The role of the physician is to treat, and help prevent, injuries and disease that can occur from behaviors or environment.” This can include asking parents questions about alcohol, drugs, use of car seats, and an infant’s sleeping position.
In other words, “it is our responsibility to understand possible health risks and provide appropriate information to help patients make decisions to keep themselves and their families safe," said Fleegler. Yet in 2010, one Florida mother took offense when her pediatrician asked if there was a gun in her home, an inquiry she termed “very invasive and a very personal question.”
Her outrage triggered Florida to pass a law in June 2011 that limited a doctor’s ability to ask patients whether they owned a gun. Then on September 14, 2011, a US District Court judge granted a preliminary injunction that blocked the Florida law, stating that it violated Constitutional free speech protections. Although six other states introduced bills similar to the one in Florida, all of them died when the states’ legislative sessions ended.
The article reports that 35% of homes with children report owning a firearm, 43% of these homes had at least one unlocked gun, and 13% kept guns that were either unlocked and loaded, or unlocked, unloaded, and stored with ammunition.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 148 children in Florida were killed by guns in 2005. In one year, the number of children killed by a gun in the United States was 5,285, compared with 0 in Japan, 19 in Britain, 57 in Germany, and 153 in Canada. Fleegler’s study reports that from 1999 to 2007, a total of 19,846 children were killed by a firearm in the United States.
The new study argues that when doctors ask parents about guns, the conversations can be productive. Ninety percent of parents surveyed in one study said they would tell their pediatrician if they had a gun in the house, and 75% of gun owners said they would heed their pediatrician’s advice to keep their guns locked and unloaded.
Fleegler noted that any discussions doctors have about guns should be nonjudgmental and sufficiently address the health risks. The authors concluded that “if physicians are not allowed to ask about firearms as a health issue, then they cannot even attempt to work toward prevention of injury. The only way to deal with a problem is to talk about it, not to suffer in silence.”
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons