Why Parents Must Talk to Pediatricians About Firearm Safety

The crucial conversations to have with pediatricians about gun safety

kids and gun safety - boy reaching drawer for handgun
Talking to pediatricians about firearm safety is important to keep kids safe. Gilbert Laurie/Getty Images

Parents talk to pediatricians about a wide range of child health and safety issues, but all too often, gun safety isn't a part of the conversation.

The issue of whether or not there are guns in a home where children live or visit is a very important one, and a September 2016 survey of parents by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine shows that it's an issue that applies to a lot of families. The researchers surveyed 1,246 parents in pediatricians' waiting rooms across Missouri and Illinois to find out if they would be receptive to discussing gun safety with their children's doctors. They found that about half of the children in the families surveyed were reported as spending time in homes that have firearms, and that very few of these parents were talking to their pediatricians about gun safety.

Some key findings from the study:

  • As many as 36 percent of the parents surveyed reported having firearms in the children’s homes, and 2/3 of these parents said they owned more than one firearm.​
  • Of the parents who said there were no firearms in their homes, 14 percent reported that their children regularly visited the homes of relatives and friends who owned guns.
  • Fewer than 13 percent of parents said they asked their child's friend's parents about guns.
  • More than 20 percent of parents who were gun owners said they kept their guns and ammunition in the same place, and 25 percent said at least one firearms were loaded. Of this group, 14 percent said the guns were accessible to kids.
  • As many as 18 percent of gun owners said they carried guns in their purses, backpacks, holsters, or inside their cars when they left their homes.
  • 75 percent of all parents (both gun owners and others) said that they think pediatricians should advise parents about safe storage of firearms.
  • 22 percent of gun owners said they would ignore advice to not have firearms in the house and nearly 14 percent said that they would be offended by such advice.
  • Only 12.8 percent of all parents said that they had a discussion about firearms with their child's pediatrician.

Why Parents Must Talk About Gun Safety

Firearm-related fatalities are estimated to be one of the top three causes of death among children, according to figures cited by the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics). And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,465 children and adolescents under age 20 died from firearm-related incidents; 15,091 were treated in emergency rooms, and 6,213 were hospitalized in 2013.

Despite these statistics, which show a clear and present danger to children, parents are not talking to their child's pediatrician about gun safety. In many cases, doctors are leery of alienating or losing patients who may feel like they're being criticized or judged; sometimes, they may be uncertain about what they are and are not legally allowed to say about guns and kids. But as the rates of injury and death show, it is important to have these conversations.

The researchers of the Washington University parent survey suggest that one way to at least open up the subject of reducing gun-related injuries and deaths in children may be for a pediatrician to talk to parents about how to store firearms safely, without directly questioning them about ownership of guns.

What Parents Should Discuss With Their Child's Pediatrician 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that the best way to prevent gun injury or death in kids is to never have a gun in the home. For those who still keep guns in the home, the AAP advises storing firearms unloaded and locked away with the bullets also locked securely in a separate place. In addition, they advise parents to make sure the keys are hidden.

For both parents who keep firearms at home and those whose children may be exposed to firearms at a place they visit, it's crucial to have a conversation about safe storage and other injury and death prevention tips. Here are some points to keep in mind when discussing gun safety with doctors:

Even parents who do not have guns in their homes should learn about gun safety. How well is that firearm stored at a friend's house when your child goes on a play date? Parents and grandparents may have a firearm securely locked away, but what happens if a child goes to a friend's house to play and that isn't the case there? Having a conversation with a pediatrician could be a crucial reminder for parents that it's important to ask questions about firearms storage wherever a child goes to play or visits.

Look at it this way: Parents worry about whether their child will be securely strapped to a car seat when their child rides in someone else's car, but they may not think to ask about whether there are guns in the house and exactly where and how they are secured.

What does safe storage mean? Having a loaded gun, or a gun with bullets right next to it, in a cabinet that's locked doesn't mean much if a child knows where the key to that cabinet is kept. Going online to find tips on safe firearms storage can also be problematic: According to the AAP, a study found that only 2 percent of commonly-search websites that talk about firearm storage provided correct and complete information on how to keep kids safe in homes with guns. Talking to a pediatrician about safe gun storage can give parents crucial information.

Just talking to a child about gun safety isn't enough. Just as research has shown simply talking to kids about the dangers of talking to strangers or how to protect against child predators does not guarantee that kids will not follow someone who's skilled at manipulating children, talking to kids about firearm safety doesn't mean injury or death will not occur.

Children are naturally curious, and often fully realize the danger of something, even if they seem to understand. And even if your child is careful, his friend may not be and could have a loaded firearm near your child. Talk to your child's pediatrician to get important safety tips to prevent a tragedy.

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