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Why is My Pediatrician Asking Me If I Own a Gun?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Something interesting happened at my preschooler's recent wellness exam. Dr. S started the visit by asking the usual questions about my child's development (how is her appetite? any behavioral issues that you are concerned about?).

Then she paused and said, "this next question is, um, awkward but I have to ask...is there a gun in your home?" [Note: she didn't say that answering this question was voluntary]

I was taken aback and sputtered out a defiant 'no.' Then immediately regretted it. In my rush to deflect any negative stereotyping I didn't stop to consider the sociopolitical and legal implications of this line of questioning. [If you think there are no hidden biases in healthcare, education and law enforcement, hold that thought until the next paragraph]

US Navy 110715-F-NJ219-161 Air Force Capt. Kristine Andrews, a pediatrician from Montgomery, Ala., explains common flu symptoms to a patient's moth
By U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Courtney Richardson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I kept replaying the conversation in my head on the drive home, as I often do when I realize that I mishandled a situation. I am not a gun rights advocate, but I still felt my rights had been violated. I mentioned the exchange to my husband and he was puzzled too, especially when I told him about her thoughtful analysis of why I didn't have a gun in my home. Her exact words were: "that's interesting. I find that my parents who live in the flats and have been exposed to gun violence never own guns, but I find that parents who live in the hills are more likely to be gun owners." Okaaaay. Why did she assume that I have been exposed to gun violence?! Where does she think I grew up?! See how quickly her innocent question about gun ownership went merrily down the wrong path?

But I digress.

Hubby and I did some snooping and found the origins of this new question. According to snopes.com" On January 16, 2013 President Obama announced a list of 23 executive actions intended to address the issue of gun violence in the U.S., one of which is to "clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors from asking patients about guns in the home." Nothing in the actions instruct doctors to ask patients either.

So it's not a law, it's a policy. One that seems to be loosely interpreted, adopted and applied by states in anticipation of Obamacare. It started in 2011 when Florida passed a preemptive law that barred doctors from asking about gun ownership except in specific cases such as if a patient was severely depressed or experiencing violence in the home. A federal judge stepped in and issued a permanent injunction on its enforcement and the state/NRA has been battling the medical community since.

I am pro gun control. Heck, I would love to travel back in time and prevent guns from ever being invented. But something about this gun ownership question rubs me the wrong way in its political charge. I understand physicians have a mandate to discuss hazards in the home with parents to ensure the safety of children. In light of statistics that show gun-related deaths among youth remain unacceptably high coupled with recent high-profile shootings of children it seems reasonable that firearms in the home would warrant scrutiny. But let's take a step back.

Are shootings among the top causes of accidental deaths in kids? According to this article, the leading causes of death from unintentional injury are: falls, poisoning, fires/burns, choking, and drowning. The pediatrician did not ask me if I used baby gates to block stairs. She did not ask me if I kept medication, household cleaners and other toxic chemicals secure. She did not ask me if I owned a fire extinguisher (although she did ask about smoke alarms and Carbon monoxide detectors). She did not ask if I knew the Heimlich and CPR.

My concern is that focus is shifting away from the major culprits of accidental deaths in kids in the interest of pacifying people like me who want gun control. Policies and laws governing the health and safety of our children should not be politically motivated because they tend to be toothless and risk having the opposite outcome. Parents came simply refuse to answer. That wouldn't be breaking the law. They can also lie. What parent is going to admit to keeping a loaded handgun in the unlocked nightstand? This policy is weak and pointless.

What do you think? I am off to sign up for a refresher CPR course.

21 comments:

Maureen Sklaroff said...

The whole thing sounds like it was incredibly awkward. I've never been asked that at a well-child exam. I don't know how I'd react. Like you, I'm pro-gun control, but like you, feel there are more important issues to discuss at well-child exams. We have one coming up, so I guess I can prepare myself mentally for the question, though I can't think of an ideal way to answer it. I still have yet to bring myself to ask another parent if they keep guns in their houses, which "authorities" say one should do. Given that a large number of people that we know, do own guns,despite us living in liberals-ville it is a valid question. Thus far, all the people I know who own guns, have gun safes, but like you said, keeping unlocked guns in the house is not something most people would advertise.

Ellen said...

I think that it's a very sad example of exactly what our country has become. I would refuse to answer. Big Brother is definitely watching but let's not make it any easier.

Jenn Mitchell said...

Wow, how this country is changing. I can't imagine being asked that, but I guess it's coming soon.

Kristyn said...

wow i cant believe they asked such a question. i have never been asked such a thing but who knows if i will in the future visit

AMBER EDWARDS said...

To me, it seems as a political tantrum, because they didn't get their way to have a forced Gun registration so they can track where all the guns are and then confiscate them. So..they are taking the alternate route, using Medical to do the dirty work. This would go on your record. and with the current anti-terrorism laws, they can easily pull your medical file claiming it is a matter of national security, and find where all the guns are located. Boom! They have a gun registry.

I'm so irate about this line of questioning! Seriously since they didn't ask about the things which ARE the leading cause of death in children. That is what should be focused on. Not a political agenda.

Sorry, I'm a bit passionate about the Government overstepping boundaries and laws to fit their agenda. Poly-sci minor in college talking here.

Kathy Burton said...

I live in NC and our pediatrician has been asking about guns for at least 10 years. I work in homes with families and in my 20+ years of experience these are just part of safety screens and jumping off points for conversations.

No one is trying to take away your weapons. The follow up questions then lead to asking if it is stored safely. This does not have to mean a gun safe but can be the top of the refrigerator.

Google the phrase "toddler shoots" and look at the news articles that pop up and you'll see why it is included in most questionaires.

Patty Woodland said...

While not a leading cause of child death or injury there are certainly a number of incidents of children harming or killing themselves or others with improperly stored guns in the home. Young children do not know they are not toys and if the gun is left loaded it's a disaster waiting to happen.

I don't have children but I do have nieces and nephews and I know that one of the first things we did when they started visiting was lock up the guns.

If presented with the question in my current situation I would most certainly question it as I don't have children but with children in the household I don't know that I'd see it as any more invasive as asking me if I store medications properly.

I too am most in favor at the very least of universal background checks. Criminals will still find ways to do harm but you need a license to drive a car....which we have all seen can also be a lethal weapon.

Kristin said...

I'm not sure how I feel about this, to be honest (which is odd, since I usually have an opinion about everything). My youngest child is 15, so I likely won't deal with this situation, but, let's pretend that I would, at my next doctor's visit.

If I owned a gun illegally (or someone in my house did), I'd obviously lie about the presence of a gun. That's a no-brainer. However, if I owned a gun legally, I'm still not sure how I'd answer. I don't like the feeling that I get from merely being asked the question, to be honest with you. I feel like I'm being put on the defensive and that I have to justify my gun ownership and "prove" that I am a safe and responsible gun owner to my DOCTOR. That's not their job. I'm not even getting into the whole "government over-stepping its bounds" or any kind of "conspiracy theory" angle...I just mean that I don't understand the whole point of questioning. I also know that from one health professional to another, they're going to have different opinions and feelings and biases and so on.

So, suppose I have a doctor who is vehemently anti-gun, period. What if I say I own handgun(s) and I have small children in the house. Just because, statistically, children are more at risk of suffering an accidental shooting when there is a gun in the house vs. when the house is gun-free (that's kind of a no-brainer, folks...obviously a house WITH a gun is going to create a larger risk of a shooting vs. a house WITHOUT a gun...what a senseless comparison!) doesn't automatically translate into my house being dangerous or unfit for children. There's no way of knowing that...without making assumptions or generalizations.

However, what does the doctor write in your chart when you refuse to answer? Or when you put up a fuss about how you feel the question is inappropriate/out of the scope of their medical care, etc.? I don't like the idea of this whole policy one bit. Shouldn't the doctor also ask if there are any prescription (and OTC, for that matter) medications in the house, and where you keep them? That's pretty risky as well.

Help! Mama Remote... said...

I think it's very odd that she decided to ask that question. Not to mention her explanation....put her foot in her mouth.

Quiana said...

I've never experienced that questions, but good for you for looking into it. I feel a lot of times when we interact with an authority figure we take a lot of things for granted and just go with the flow. It's important for us to question things like this and good for you for looking into the reasoning behind it.

Teresa R. Simpson said...

I applaud you for thinking beyond your personal opinions about gun control and recognizing this question as a biased one. We should all be so intelligent. Anyway, while I am not opposed to discussing gun safety with my child's pediatrician, I would also expect to have to discuss pool safety, household hazards, and other dangers.

Gabe and Libby said...

What I think is that you wrote a very good post!

I AM NOT in favor of Gun Control per-say, I am in favor of enforcing the laws that are now "on the books". Instead of enforcing present laws, our legislators are enacting more and more new laws that are totally in opposition of the Constitution of the United States. We are rapidly changing from For the People By the People, to By the Congress for Whatever THEY want.

Thank you for a well written "unbiased" piece.

Jenna Wood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenna Wood said...

I agree, guns are far from the leading cause of infant or childhood deaths and injuries. Whether one is pro gun control or not, it is a bit shocking to see some pediatricians applying their rights to inquire as a need to inquire. She should have been more concerned with sleeping positions and CPR classes, as you mentioned!

Lena B said...

I don't link this line of questioning? What's next?

Heavenly Savings said...

I grew up in a town where every one owned guns. I was shooting guns and knew how to properly handle one by the time I was 8. Guns were a part of our day to day life. If you are out on the farm and you see a coyote killing off your livestock then you had better have a gun handy to do something about it....when I went to school every single vehicle in the parking lot had guns in them. We were all high school kids and we brought them. The teachers did as well. It is just a part of life for us. There has never been a shooting there. In fact I don't ever remember ANYONE ever being killed with a gun in my entire town! Guns don't kill people.....people kill people. It is very sad that our doctors are now supposed to document if we own them or not...very very sad to see this question being asked. It is not their business nor is it the business of our government.

Sophie said...

Last year we had a hospital refuse a routine scan unless we verified we were Hispanic. Rubbed me the wrong way and there was no law or policy they could reference to back up the line of questioning.

Kalley C said...

Wow, I can't believe that this is where our country is headed. Like you mentioned, in the home, there are more than one way a child can seriously get injured, and gun violence is really not at the top of the list. Guess I have to brace myself for this question from my Dr. visit (that and the paperwork I'm going to bring to him to tell him he's wrong about my son's growth...).

HynesMom said...

That question has always been on the form we fill out at well visits since my son was a baby - long before Obama was in office.

Debi Gerhart said...

My kids' doctor have the question on a questionaire. They do not directly ask it. Then they follow up with is it locked away and what not. We do not own them but I never thought too much into the question.

Jade Samson - Diva Fabulosa said...

I was surprised to hear a pediatrician asked you this but I guess there must be something about this question that is for the children's safety...

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