Asking the Loaded Question: Does Your Family Keep a Gun In the House?

0212_scaredbullyLike most parents, I've grown more upset as each new story comes out about children accidentally shot by another child. Three in all in the Seattle area: two children killed and one terribly injured by guns that should have never been allowed into the small hands of the shooters.

As parents ourselves, first we hurt for the victims and their loved ones. Then we get angry.

And then we get scared.

What I was left thinking about, beyond the tragedies, is something that’s been nagging at me for some time: Are there any weapons in the places where my children spend time?

I posted an inquiry on to my friends on Facebook: “Does anyone ask about weapons in the home before they let their child go to a friend’s house?”

My question mushroomed into a 30-plus-comment thread. The most common answer: “We know we should be asking. But we don’t.”

Wow, a topic that makes people (including me) so uncomfortable that we can’t bring ourselves to ask a simple question that might help keep our kids safe. For a generation that has made it our credo to do everything right on the parenting front, that says a lot.

Turns out this is one of the more perplexing modern parenting questions, and I’m not alone struggling with it.

Why we should ask

“I get this question in every workshop I teach,” said Kim Estes of Savvy Parents Safe Kids. I contacted Estes to talk about whether I, and other parents, should ask the gun question.

Yes, she said. We should. And then she said something else that really hit me:

“If we can't step up to the plate and do the awkward thing, how can we expect our kids to?" said Estes, referring to the expectations we place on our children to resist guns (and drugs and alcohol and other dangerous stuff).

Holy cow, she’s right! If I can’t ask a fellow parent if there’s a gun in their home, however uncomfortable asking that question might be, how in the world can I expect my daughters to say no, under pressure, in front of their friends?

Things were so easy when they were toddlers and preschoolers.

It’s culturally acceptable, if not encouraged, to be overprotective when our children are small. We stayed for play dates. No one batted an eye if we asked whether there was a dog on the premises because our toddler was lately terrified of dogs, or if lunch could please be prepared nut-free.

But now that we’ve solidly entered the drop-off play date years it suddenly seems awkward to be helicoptering, to borrow for a minute that hated parenting label. Who wants to be seen as freakishly anxious when dropping off your kid for a couple hours of Legos or watercolors?

Leading up to these recent tragic shootings, I was torn about the gun question. I’m a nervous mother by nature. But on the other hand, when I was a kid I walked to school and play dates alone at age 6, and I don’t remember my parents ever talking about guns, prescription drugs in someone’s bathroom vanity, knives, sucking helium or any other danger (except for good touch/bad touch — my mother did cover that).

In my husband’s family, the giant lot of siblings were let out into a rural playground every morning and left to their own devices (and yes, these did include experiments with guns and explosives) until dinner.

Shocking now, but to borrow another overused maxim: We all survived.

Yet, not every child does.

In 2009, 3,588 children and teens ages 0-19 were treated in emergency rooms for unintentional gunshot wounds, and in 2007, 138 were killed, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Center to Prevent Youth Violence, which promotes June 21 as National Ask Day (a cool idea, check it out).

And although repeatedly talking to our children about gun safety (If they see a gun they should stop, leave the area immediately and tell an adult) is critical, apparently we can’t rely on that alone.

This was a common belief on my informal Facebook poll: “Oh, my kid would never mess with a gun.”

Terrifyingly, though, I’ve learned that studies have shown that even when taught not to ahead of time, in simulated exercises kids with access to a gun pick up the weapon and use it.

"You should go in assuming your kid's going to touch the gun,” Estes said.

Another common mistake, according to Estes: Parents assuming their child’s friends don’t have guns at home.

“They’re liberals,” a couple of my friends even joked.

After my chat with Estes, and with the details of these recent tragedies still fresh in my worrying mother’s mind, I’ve decided I will ask.

I still have to work out how, but I won’t chicken out.

It’s true, there are many dangers, some statistically higher than gun violence, and I will teach my children about many of those, too. But if I can increase my daughters' chances of staying safe in any way, I should.

Get tips on asking about guns on our Just ASK page.

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