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Pediatricians can’t ask you about guns

August 04, 2014

There’s been an ongoing court battle here in the state of Florida over whether physicians have the right to ask families about gun ownership in their home.

The Florida Privacy of Firearm Owners Act was signed into law by Governor Rick Scott in 2011. This law prevents pediatricians from inquiring about gun ownership and discussing relevant safety information regarding how guns are stored and how to protect children from accidental injury. After a legal challenge by several state and national physician groups, in June of 2012 U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke declared the law unconstitutional and a restriction of a physician’s right to free speech. However, an appeals court has now overturned this decision and ruled in favor of the State of Florida.

Why do pediatricians ask about gun ownership?

When we think of our pediatrician, we probably think of school check-ups, vaccines, or the person we seek if our kid is sick or in pain. But there’s another aspect of a pediatrician’s job that is critically important, one you may not be as familiar with. It’s called anticipatory guidance.

Anticipatory guidance means that it’s your doctor’s job to understand where your child is developmentally and to understand what challenges your child is likely to face in the upcoming season of his life. Your pediatrician is supposed to take all of the medical knowledge, all of the knowledge gained from seeing thousands of patients, and his or her knowledge of your family and your individual child and use that information to help you keep your child healthy. It’s not simply about treating an illness. It’s about preventing problems before they start.

Now that my son is nearly a year old, my pediatrician has begun talking to me a lot about safety. He knows that at this stage of life, the most likely threat to my son is injury. So he reminds me to strap him into his highchair to prevent falls. He asks me whether we have a pool or a pool fence. He talks to me about whether my son is climbing on furniture and whether our large furniture needs to be secured to the wall to prevent injury.

My kids have been perfectly healthy. It’s part of my pediatrician’s job to make sure they stay healthy, and I’m unbelievably grateful for that effort.

Talking to families about guns falls into this category of anticipatory guidance.

Firearm injuries are 1 of the top 3 causes of death in American children.

Firearm injuries cause more than 3,000 child deaths every year, most of which are accidental. Pediatricians ask families about gun ownership because guns are a threat to the safety of our kids. Educating parents about how to store guns safely (with a gun lock, in a locked cabinet with ammunition stored in a separate place) helps prevent tragedy.

But I don’t own guns. What does this have to do with me?

It’s easy to think that if we don’t have guns in our home or if we already know how to store guns safely, this issue just doesn’t pertain to us. Our kids will be safe because we already know the right things. The unfortunate reality, though, is that our children cannot always live in the safe, little bubble we create for them.

They will have play dates and sleepovers at other people’s homes. As they become teenagers, they will be influenced by peers and we won’t always have control over everything they do and experience.

More than one-third of all accidental shootings occur in the home of friends, relatives or neighbors.

Our children, mine and yours, could suffer the consequences of other people’s negligence, and when it comes to guns, the stakes are life and death.

In the past, pediatricians have added an extra layer of protection for our kids because they have a broad reach with a huge cross-section of families. They have made it safer for all of us because their influence extends deep into the fabric of families in every walk of life. However, that time has come to an end.

What should we do?

The current Florida legislation has robbed our children of vital protection against gun violence. That means that we as parents bear an even heavier burden of responsibility to protect our children.

The best way to minimize this damage is to educate your children.

Talk to your kids about guns. (My daughter is 4; we are talking about it.) Be sure they know that they are never to play with guns. Let them know that if they ever see anyone playing with a gun, they are to leave immediately and find an adult. Let them know that guns should never, ever be used without an adult. They are not toys; they can kill people.

No matter how awkward it may be, talk to others about it. If your child is spending the night at a friend’s house, ask them whether they own guns. Ask them how these firearms are secured. Ask grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors. If you are entrusting your child to their care, it’s your business.

Your child’s life may depend on it.