A co-worker asked me this question recently: When your children are going on a play date or a sleepover, do you ask the other parents if they have guns in the house?
Ummm … It had never occurred to me that I should. Should I?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from 2007 to 2011 an average of 62 children a year ages 14 and younger were accidentally shot and killed.
A June 2014 study from Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action found that there were 100 such cases from December 2012 to December 2013; 14 of those deaths were in Texas. About 65 percent of these deaths happened in a victim’s home or vehicle, and most of the guns were owned legally but were not stored safely. And 19 percent happened at the home of a relative or friend. Moms of boys: 77 percent of the victims were boys and 82 percent of the shooters were boys. The risks go up during the preschool years (ages 2 to 4) and the teen years (ages 12 to 14).
Those are some sobering numbers. Kellye Burke, a Houston mom of sons ages 5 and 8, is a spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action, which promotes gun safety. She joined the group the day it started, a few days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012.
Parents absolutely should be asking about guns in their children’s friends’ homes, she says. It’s part of the checklist of questions you ask before you let your child go for that play date, she says. “Make it a part of your conversation,” Burke says. “‘Before I drop off John, do you have a pet, a pool or firearms in your house?’”
You don’t have to apologize for asking. You just want to know what the family’s safety procedure is. Just like you want to know if there is a cat in the house if your child is allergic or that there’s a locked fence around the pool, you want to know that the family stores guns safely, she says.
Storing a gun safely means that the gun is locked up and is unloaded and that the ammunition is not stored with the gun.
It can feel like a difficult conversation to have, but it doesn’t have to be, Burke says. Do it well before the play date; you can even email your questions to avoid a face-to-face conversation if it’s difficult for you.
“Would I rather make myself be slightly embarrassed or find out my kid shot himself in the head?” she asks.
Alice Tripp, the Texas State Rifle Association’s legislative director, chuckled when I asked her whether I should be asking parents about their gun storage. “I wouldn’t ask it,” she says. “I would not think of it. It’s like asking, ‘How do you handle your bug spray or a sharp, pointy knife?’ I teach my children and grandchildren gun safety. That’s the best insulation.”
Instead, you should be asking about supervision, she says. “Are children left alone? That would bother me most of all.”
But Burke says teaching kids gun safety is not enough because kids are naturally curious. Even after a gun safety class, Burke says, “We have overwhelming evidence that kids still check it out, still pull the trigger, still point it.”
Gun safety, she says, “is the only aspect where we rely on the kids to take responsibility for it.”
“How many times have you told your child not to jump on the bed and they jump on the bed?” Burke says. “This is an adult responsibility, not a kid responsibility.”
So, if you ask the question and the parent won’t answer or the answer doesn’t indicate guns are stored safely, then what?
Then you have to be comfortable making the decision that your child doesn’t go over to the play date or the play date gets moved to your house. Since she’s started asking the question, Burke says, the families of playmates have been easy. Having the conversation with her own family, however, which is no stranger to firearms, has been difficult. They no longer visit family members with unsecured guns.