Florida, doctors and questions about guns: what's going on?

Claire McCarthy, MD

I don’t know whether you’ve heard about this, but on June 2nd Governor Scott of Florida signed a bill making it illegal for doctors to ask if families own a gun. Apparently the National Rifle Association and other gun activists feel that doctors have an agenda when it comes to guns.

They’re right. We do have an agenda.

Our agenda is keeping kids alive.

In pursuit of that agenda, we pediatricians aren’t just concerned about guns. We are passionate about car seats, bike helmets and immunizations. We want to be sure that pools are secured, and that medications and dangerous chemicals are kept out of reach. We worry about whether people are smoking cigarettes around our patients—and as our patients get older, we worry about whether they are smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol, or using drugs. Talking to families about guns is just one piece of what we do in our attempt to be sure that our patients grow up.

I was going to blog about this a while ago, when the House and Senate versions of the bill were still floating around the Florida Congress, but I thought: no, why bother, it will never pass. After all, guns really are dangerous. Here are a few scary statistics:

• Death by firearm is the 2nd leading cause of death for children 0 to 18 (behind motor vehicle accidents). It is the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15 to 24.

• One-third of U.S. homes with kids under 18 have a gun, and in 40 percent of those homes the gun isn’t locked up.

• More than half of the adolescents less than 20 who used a gun to attempt or commit suicide used their parent’s gun.

• Children ages 5 to 14 who live in the U.S. are 11 times more likely to be killed accidentally by a gun than those who live in other developed countries

• A household gun is 43 times more likely to kill someone known to the family than it is to kill someone in self-defense

Honestly, how can we call ourselves responsible doctors if we don’t ask if the family has a gun? This, I figured, would be obvious to any sensible legislator. I guess it wasn’t.

The supporters of the law say that doctors can give information about gun safety (which is all we would do anyway if a family said they owned one). We just can’t ask about gun ownership—or at least we can’t ask unless it is clearly relevant to the medical care, and unless we don’t do or say anything that might be interpreted as harassing the family. The language of the law is so vague it would make me nervous about even mentioning guns if I were practicing in Florida.

“It’s not good health education, or good care, to just point parents to a rack of pamphlets. Good care is impossible if we can’t ask questions.”

That’s the other mindboggling aspect of this. The other reason I didn’t blog about it before is that I couldn’t imagine they would pass a law stopping doctors from asking questions. We need to ask questions. It’s how we diagnose things, how we figure out the best treatments, how we support families in parenting, how we connect them with resources, how we know what information they need to keep their children healthy and happy. It’s not good health education, or good care, to just point parents to a rack of pamphlets. Good care is impossible if we can’t ask questions.

This, I thought, would be even more obvious to any sensible legislator. But it turns out that somehow it wasn’t obvious to the Florida legislators (nor were the First Amendment implications; the law is being challenged already). And here’s what’s even scarier: other states are considering similar laws.

What is happening to us? Don’t people see the slippery slope this could become? Will the cigarette lobby stop us from asking questions about cigarettes? Will the pool lobby stop us from asking about pools? Once you start getting into exam rooms and dictating the conversation between doctor and patient, you endanger the care, and the health, of that patient. That can’t be what we want.

Yes, I have an agenda, about which I am passionate: ensuring the health, safety and happiness of children. Most of all, I want to keep them alive.

Here’s my question to those who support the Florida law and laws like it: is your agenda really more important than that?

39 thoughts on “Florida, doctors and questions about guns: what's going on?

  1. Sorry, I disagree with you.

    I’m quite certain that most doctors don’t ask every child if they have a bike, and if they do, do they wear a helmet.  I’ve never heard my daughter’s pediatrician ask her if we have a pool, and if so, is it secured.  I have never had any doctor ask us if our daughter was in a car seat either.  Seems to me that you doctors are arbitrarily concerned about things that affect our children’s safety, if this is what you’re using as a defense here.

    If we’re going to invade people’s privacy by asking whether or not they have firearms in the house, why not ask the child about mommy and daddy’s prescriptions as well?  How about Grandma and Grandpa’s?  What are they taking?  Is the medicine secure?  You can also quiz my kid on whether or not there are sharp pointy knives in the house as well, right?  Where are those kept?  How about whether or not Mommy and Daddy stay right next to you at the beach, or let you play in the shallow water without hovering over you like a helicopter?  Oh, and did we ask about whether your parents let you climb trees?  Do you wear a safety harness so you don’t fall and hurt yourself?  The list could be virtually endless.

    It is a HUGE violation of privacy to have your child forced into the role of informant, and an insult to the gun-owning crowd among us to assume that they aren’t following basic safety measures where their firearms are concerned.  Why not just give the handout to ALL parents, if you are that concerned about patient safety???  Why invade the privacy of a select few??

    And for the record, no … I DON’T happen to own a gun.  I just think you’re wrong on this one.

    1. Select a new pediatrician. He or she is negligent regarding the information they should be imparting to you as a parent.  My pediatrician has asked every single one of the questions that Dr. McCarthy mentions in her article and I am grateful for it. Obviously I am already following the safety recommendations that she asks about, but I am glad that she is thorough and looking out for my child’s well-being.

      1. I agree. A good pediatrician, like those that we pride ourselves on having
        here at Children’s, would ask those questions. I good pediatrician cares about
        the safety and well-being of each and every one of their patients – and not just
        their health. A good pediatrician educates their patients and their parents – not only
        about illness, but about health and wellness.


        I applaud you Dr. McCarthy; another wonderful post. 

      2. We have an AMAZING pediatrician, thank you very much.  She is not negligent, she simply knows us well enough to trust that we are capable of looking out for our children’s safety without needing her to hover over us and give unnecessary and demeaning “instructions”.

        Like I said … if doctors want to disseminate information on firearm safety (or ANY OTHER safety measures) it is more than easy to do so without violating people’s privacy.  Prepare safety packets with all the information in them, and give them to the parents of ALL YOUR PATIENTS.  If this is a problem for doctors, then clearly, safety was never their agenda in the first place.

        1. You obviously don’t have an amazing pediatrician if she fails to ask your children basic questions that are meant to keep them safe. You are stupid to even think that doctors aren’t concerned for your children’s saftey. If you don’t have anything intellegent to say, be quiet.

  2. Frankly, it’s none of your business. Are you going to treat my child any differently because I own a gun? Take care of my child’s health, I’ll worry about their safety. Thank you.

    1. I think it’s pretty clear from this statistic, “Death by firearm is the 2nd leading cause of death for children 0 to 18 (behind motor vehicle accidents),” that not all parents are able to “worry about their safety.” If pediatricians aren’t bridging that gap, who would you suggest does?

  3. I disagree as well, what I own is my business not my doctors. All this rederic about gun restrictions will do nothing to curtail the illegal activities of those who wish to break the law by shooting someone, or take the guns out of their hands. All the time money and effort that doctors and our fearless leaders are putting into anti gun propaganda could be better spent on going after criminals directly not law abiding citizens. If you want to promote safety in the home try this. I bought an ATV and it came with a safety video and an offer for a free safe rider course. This same means of safety awareness could be used for gun purchases, this would be a far better way to go about things rather than passing laws to eliminate gun ownership for those who obey the law. This would not however do a thing about illegal use by criminals who by the way account for the mass majority of gun related incedents. I for one want my guns when the criminals come kncking on my door and by the way my kids know how to safely use them.

    1. Guess which happens more often: (a) a household successfully defended when criminals come knocking at a gun-owner’s door; (b) a household gun used for suicide, homicide, or accidental death/injury.

      It’s not even close.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Jmthor66.  I have MANY problems with the blog.  First, I looked a numerous sites for statistics to validate what Dr. Claire says and they are all over the map.  That said, most have deaths by firearms far below what she is saying.

    The general consensus of “unnatural deaths” is more like:

    1) Motor vehicle:  8.5%
    2) Suffocation/strangluation: 1.4%
    3) Drowning:  1.3%
    4) Poisoning: 1.0
    5) Fire/Burn:  0.6%
    6) Firearm 0.2%

    Where is her agenda to decrying motor vehicles, plastic bags, or water?

    As JMthor66 said, you take care of the child’s health and let the parents worry about their safety!

    Children’s Hospital SHOULD NOT become a political lobbying entity. 

    1. Guest: “Where is her agenda to decrying motor vehicles, plastic bags, or water?”
      Perhaps you missed this part?”We are passionate about car seats, bike helmets and immunizations. We want to be sure that pools are secured, and that medications and dangerous chemicals are kept out of reach. We worry about whether people are smoking cigarettes around our patients—and as our patients get older, we worry about whether they are smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol, or using drugs.”

      Do you have a problem with doctors asking about car seats, bike helmets, or whether or not you own a pool? Or if you smoke cigarettes around your children? How would you feel about a law that prevented doctors from asking about these things? Is it so hard to answer questions like this honestly?

      Judging by the comments, it seems like a lot of people are simply proving Claire’s point correct: that they care more about their own agenda (individual privacy or interpretation of the 2nd amendment).

  5. Check your stats again, Doctor. The vast majority of the “kids”(0-19 years old) killed by guns are gang bangers popping each other. My next statement will not be popular, but it is the truth: Gang violence is a big part of the problem with 15-24 year old deaths of African American males. Talking to parents who actually care enough to take their children to a pediatrician about gun safety will not affect gang violence in the slightest.

  6. Thank you for your concern but how much do doctors really know about responsible firearm ownership?  Did you know in your own state of
    Massachusetts a firearm needs to be either locked box / safe or secured with a trigger lock when not on the licensed owner’s person.  Ammunition needs to be secured in a similar manor as well.
    Instead of intruding on patients privacy how about a blanked statement to all patients reminding them to exercise their right to bear arms safely.

  7. What are you going to do as a Doctor if a child tells you there are guns in their home?  What can you do if no law has been broken?  The point is not that guns are dangerous – the point is it is none of your business as my doctor.  Will you treat us any differently because we have firearms?  Are your going to teach us a firearms safety class?  It really comes down to the fact that it is none of your business.

  8. I have an issue with discussing whether I own a firearm with anyone, not just my doctor. It is not unheard of for someone to access your information and find out that you don’t have a gun and choose you as a victim. I live in Florida and a big part of this problem was not just the doctors asking the question, but there were doctors that would refuse to see the child anymore if the parent chose not to answer the question. Surely if a doctor has the right to ask the question I should have the right to not answer. For the record I am a Paramedic who has attended many, many conferences on trauma and I would dispute the doctor’s statistics as some of the others have. Think for yourself. Do a little research. Don’t believe everything somebody tells you, even if the are a doctor.        

  9. Unless that gun has a direct impact on why the child is sick, its none of your business.  Take my money, do your job, then shut up and be thankful I’ve decided to use your practice so you can afford a computer to blog about your disdain for firearms on.

  10. Unless a child comes into your clinic with a gun shot wound, you have no business asking about guns.  Period.  I mean, if a kid comes in with a broken arm from wrecking his bike, do you stop and say “Wait a minute!  Before we set this arm, I need to know if you have a hand gun.”?  Do your job, heal the child.  I would think that intrducing politics to your practice would be a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.  You have much bigger things to worry about than whether or not a gun is in the home or not.
    The following was taken directly from your article:  “The other reason I didn’t blog about it before is that I couldn’t imagine they would pass a law stopping doctors from asking questions. We need to ask questions. It’s how we diagnose things, how we figure out the best treatments, how we support families in parenting, how we connect them with resources, how we know what information they need to keep their children healthy and happy.”
    How does knowing if there is a gun in the house help with stiches? Do you sew up a cut differently if there is a gun in the house?  What about an ear infection?  Is there a different perscription needed because there is a gun in the house?  What is your real intrest in knowing whether there is guns in the house or not?  I doubt seriously “it’s for the children”.

    Maybe, instead of criticizing another state’s laws and legislators, you stick to your own state, and make sure there isn’t room for improvment there first.

  11. More often than not my wife and i or both will be in the room with our children and i can speak for my family when i say “it’s none of your business and tend to the patiant”.Unless they are barfing bullets or crapping cold steel then there is no reason for anyone to ask my children anything about guns.

  12. Good god the NRA is far too powerful.

    These are simple and logical questions. How they can justify stopping a doctor from asking them is insane.

  13. She is a total kook! I know who to stay away from at the hospital now, thank you. I have a question: What about botched procedures performed on children while chasing the cash doc? Where is your data on that?

  14. Does the Dr. has a political agenda considering her lack of knowledge about the statistics?

    Secondly, it is Dr.’s responsibility to provide a service for a fee, nothing else. 
    The lives or habits of her patients, especially matters that are legal according to our constitution, are not her business. Pretty simple.   

  15. If their stated goal is to protect kids, than they should concentrate on the medical errors that kill kids each year.  
    Clean up your own house before you bother me about mine.

  16. When doctor’s ask me those questions I find it extremely condescending. It’s as if the doctor is saying “hey, you’re not a doctor so clearly you’re so stupid you don’t know to educate your children on safety.”  I’m as educated as my peditrician is, but I’m currently a stay at home mom and to top that off I am overweight so the natural assumption by most physicians is that I am completely ignorant. I despise being asked “does your child wear a seat belt?” No, doc. I just let them play around while I drive 110 mph on the interstate with a beer in 1 hand and a cigarette in the other (this comment written in sarcasm font). On the other hand, having my child in the proper car seat for it’s height, weight and age seems pretty simple to me, but sadly there are some parents who do need anticipatory safety guidance. There is a reason doctors started giving it, after all. So, where I find these questions extremely insulting I can also understand why physcians feel it necessary.

    Take a look at some of the other laws recently passed in Florida and you’ll find we’re on a roll for passing some especially ludacris ones.

    To Heather below, you need a new pediatrician if yours isn’t asking those questions. I have 5 children and am asked those questions every time we see a new physician, which is pretty often because we move every 2-3 years.

    This is just something doctors ask. I don’t especially like it because it indicates I have no common sense, but the plethora of parents who actually do have no common sense necesitate these questions being asked.

    1. Please see my comment above on our pediatrician.  She is NOT negligent in any way whatsoever.  She is competent enough and savvy enough to know that we take care of our children’s safety just fine without needing step-by-step instructions from her.  Frankly, I would find a new pediatrician if she STARTED asking my kids questions like that, because I would be extremely insulted.

  17. FACTS TO PONDER :(A) The number of physicians in the U.S. is 700,000.(B) Accidental deaths caused by Physicians per year are120,000.(Calculation) Accidental deaths per physician is 0.171.Statistics courtesy of U.S. Dept of Health Human Services>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Now think about this:Guns:(A) The number of gun owners in the U.S. is 80,000,000.(Yes, that’s 80 million..)(B) The number of accidental gun death per year, all age groups, is 1,500.(Calculation) The number of accidental deaths per gun owner is .000188.Statistics courtesy of FBI>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> So, statistically, doctors are approximately 9,000 times more dangerous than gun owners.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Remember, ‘Guns don’t kill people, doctors do.’>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>FACT: NOT EVERYONE HAS A GUN, BUT ALMOST EVERYONE HAS AT LEAST ONE DOCTOR.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Please alert your friends to this alarming threat.We must ban doctors before this gets completely out of hand!!!!!>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Out of concern for the public at large, I withheld the statistics on lawyers for fear the shock would cause people to panic and seek medical attention.

  18.  I still believe NO Dr. has the right to intrude unless it pertains to the illness. It IS their job to report any suspected abuse/gun wounds. Thats where their responsibility begins & ends. They arent the police. Nor do they have the proper training to be a social worker!

  19. I truly can’t believe Children’s Hospital is PAYING this doctor to spew a political agenda.  Seriously?  And we have to make budget cuts which almost always results in the lowest paid employees getting cut.  God forbid we ever eliminate a physician position.

    Spend more time actually healing kids than playing the part of moonbat lobbyist.

  20. I find the comments against discussing firearm safety rather amusing.  No one ever said you cannot own a gun.  No one ever said you had to give up your gun if you have children.  The discussion is about child safety and proper storeage and handing of guns. And invasion of privacy?  Read the Second Amendment.  There is no mention of privacy.  Why so defensive?  The way people brag about their arsonals you would think that they would be proud to say they owned a gun.
    Hidden agenda?  Get real!
    As for the decline in deaths as reported in some publications, perhaps it is because of the discussions on gun safety by their pediatricians that rose the awareness of a potential tragedy.  And frankly I don’t care if there are fewer deaths.  Even one death is too many–and preventable.

  21. Totally agree with Dr. McCarthy . Parents have no right to expose their kids to the hazards of having a gun at home. Physicians cannot be neutral about this risk; similar to risk of living in a house containing lead, poisons or pesticides.

  22. By the way, Dr. Claire??  My children are both patients of Children’s Hospital Boston, I am a Democrat and I DON’T own any firearms.

    That being said, I thank you for being so clear about where you stand on this issue, because I know now that I will NEVER allow you to treat my children outside of an emergency situation.  If you would rather invade the privacy of your clients than simply disburse safety information to EVERYONE, whether they own guns/have pools/ride bikes or not, then you clearly have an agenda far above being concerned for the safety of my kids.

  23. So for those who are saying “you only have the right to ask about guns in the home if the patient has a gunshot wound.” … do you also think healthcare providers only have the right to discuss the measles vaccine when the child has already contracted measles?  Do we only have the right to ask about bike helmets after a child has a skull crushed from an accident?  We can only ask about pool safety after the child has drowned? 

    I think the gun-righs advocates are feeling insecure about gun ownership. These people are focusing only on their right to have a gun and their feelings about being judged for gun ownership.  Grow a pair!  A doctor or nurse saying “are you doing what you can to keep your child safe at home?” is NOT saying “no guns allowed, bad person, I am a doctor and I am judging you!”  (Even if that is what you seem to be hearing.)

    A healthcare provider asking about seatbelts, helmets, cigarette smoking, and keeping loaded guns away from 4 year olds isn’t trying to hurt your tender gun-owning feelings.  The provider is practicing preventative medicine and anticipatory guidance… you know, trying to keep kids healthy and safe *before* they get hurt or sick. 
    I do not own a gun, I did not grow up with guns. My BIL does keep guns in the home, he is an avid hunter.  And when we stay in his house, you bet I ask him to show me how he keeps his guns safe.  And he is not offended, he does not get his panties in a twist – because he is a mature, responsible gun owner who prioritizes his child’s safety (and my child’s, too!)

  24. I am outraged at the people who left these comments. Are you doctors? Do you know more than someone who was trained to keep people alive? If no, shut up. I can’t believe you people have the nerve to say “Do your job and heal the child.” Asking whether or not you own a pool or a  gun is not a major invasion of your privacy. And no one said you had to answer them. But why wouldn’t you, if it could help someone who’s trying to help your child? Shouldn’t your child come before your stupid paranoia that someone will take your unnescessary gun away? You are all shallow and stupid. I feel horrible for the children that are forced to be raised by such idiots. Its because of you people that we need doctors in the first place. And where did you get your statistics? They’re wrong, by the way. I thought this blog was intelligent and full of insight. You probably didn’t even read it, did you? And to the “ITS BETTER TO HAVE A GUN ON YOUR HIP THAN PRESS ON YOUR HEAD” guy, you are insensitive and stupid. I saw you comment on the Bin Laden blog, too. If you are raising a child, then someone should call child services. You are all sicken me. Burn in hell, idiots. I send all my sympathy to your children.

  25. DOCTORS AREN’T THE PROBELM. IT IS THE STUPID GUN-TOTING PEOPLE THAT WRITE THESE HORRIBLE COMMENTS! If you aren’t a doctor, shut up, redneck. If your child doesn’t come before your “privacy”, then you are a terrible parent and person. I for one, LOVED article, which you people obviously didn’t read.

  26. Hey…  Guns don’t kill people… people misusing guns kill people.  A more appropriate thing to do would be to ask, “do you have a gun, and if so, is it locked up?”  yeah.

    On another note, what if there was a suicidal person in the house? It would be really important to  know about the gun and its availability to said person,
    Who knows? Maybe we could actually save a life.

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