Researchers examined records from more than 16,500 routine visits to the University of Utah's pediatric clinic between January 2017 and July 2018. One question parents are typically asked at these appointments is whether there are guns in the home and whether they're locked.
During the study period, there were mass shootings in Las Vegas and in Parkland, Fla. In the months afterward, doctors were less likely to ask parents about gun safety.
This was especially notable among medical residents. After the two mass shootings, they brought up gun safety in half their appointments, compared with 70% in the months before.
In comparison, doctors asked whether a home had working smoke alarms in 90% of appointments, according to the study published online Oct. 28 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
"We know that it is important to ask these questions, but physicians may have limited training in communication about a sensitive topic such as guns," said first author Dr. Carole Stipelman, an associate professor of pediatrics and medical director of the university's pediatric clinic. "Asking the questions may seem more difficult after mass shootings."
More study is needed to learn why doctors are hesitant to talk with patients about guns. But Stipelman said some may simply find gun violence too painful to think about, particularly after a mass shooting, while others don't want to appear judgmental or risk their relationship with parents.
"As mass shootings have become commonplace, it is important to improve communication if we can prevent even one death by reminding parents to lock up a gun," Stipelman said in a university news release.
Experts estimate that 4.6 million U.S. children live in homes with guns that are loaded and unlocked.