Mar. 23 -- TUESDAY, June 5 (HealthDay News) -- At your child's next visit to the pediatrician, the usual checklist of questions might include a new one: Do you have a gun in the house?
Almost one-fourth of 3,754 parents with young children -- surveyed at 96 pediatric practices in 45 states, Puerto Rico and Canada -- keep a gun at home. Yet in 70 percent of those homes with guns, parents said they hadn't taken adequate precautions to safely store the weapons, researchers report.
Pediatricians have a key role in promoting gun safety in homes where there are children, according to one of the study's authors, Dr. Shari Barkin, chief of the division of general pediatrics at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville.
"It's just about keeping children safe and reducing firearm injuries," added Barkin, who did the research while at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. For pediatricians to inquire about guns in the home is the same as reviewing other safety measures such as storing medications out of the reach of children, she said. "We ... educate about how to create safe environments for children, because children often find things that pose a danger to them."
Guns are often involved in every parent's nightmare. A Rand study done six years ago found that 34 percent of children in the United States (representing more than 22 million children in 11 million homes) live in homes with at least one firearm.
"Guns are a major household hazard for kids, especially for older kids who are more at risk for suicide," said Renee M. Johnson, a Harvard School of Public Health research associate who has done studies on firearm storage in homes.
To try to prevent gun-related tragedies, 18 states have so-called child-access protection acts. These laws impose liability or criminal penalties on parents and adults where injuries or deaths have resulted from youngsters gaining access to unsecured guns, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
But safe storage -- defined as guns being unloaded, locked in a cabinet or with a gun lock, with ammunition stored separately -- apparently isn't a widespread practice, the new research suggests.
Parents raised in gun-owning families were less likely to store firearms safely, according to the new study, published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics.
And families who owned both handguns and long guns also were less likely to keep their guns locked up at home.
Parents who owned just long guns -- such as rifles or shotguns -- and had children between 2 and 5 years old were more likely to follow safe storage recommendations than were the parents of 6- to 11-year-olds, the survey found.
It also revealed that more than half of the parents who had guns at home said they played some role in deciding where the guns would be kept. Depending on the type of guns, between 26 percent and 38 percent of the weapons were hidden in some place other than a locked cabinet.
The survey showed that gun ownership was highest among rural families and "in families that were white, had two or fewer adolescents, had two adults in the home and had a total family income of $40,000 a year or more."
There were no significant differences in storage safety among racial groups or rural or non-rural locations.
The finding that gun-owning families are generally more protective of younger children than older children is consistent with earlier research, said Johnson.
In a study she co-authored last year, researchers found that families with both teens and younger children were more cautious about gun storage.
"Parents do really well in terms of keeping their very young kids safe from gun injuries, but need to do better to make sure that guns are stored safely when there are older kids in the house," Johnson said.
"Too many kids in this country die from such highly preventable means," added Dr. Denise Dowd, chief of injury prevention at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. "We also know that storing guns safely works to prevent death and injury from kids playing with guns as well as self-inflicted injury among teens."
Dowd said pediatricians alone "do not own the problem. Nothing should stop parent groups, grandparent groups, community and public health organizations from getting the message out."
To learn more about the safe use of firearms, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
SOURCES: Shari L. Barkin, M.D. chief of division of general pediatrics, Vanderbilt Medical Center, and professor of pediatrics, Vanderbilt School of Medicine, Nashville, Tenn.; Denise Dowd, M.D., chief of injury prevention, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.; Renee M. Johnson, Ph.D., MPH, research associate, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; June 2007, Pediatrics