Last winter, American parents were rocked by the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children dead. Since then, many of us have struggled with a sense of unease about how to balance the safety of children with the long history of gun-ownership in America.
Shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, my friend Jen brought up something I had thought of before but had never implemented. She decided to start talking to other parents about guns in the home. She began by telling other parents about their firearm status before their children came to her house and she started asking them the same before she dropped her kids off for playdates. Such a simple conversation. But what a brilliant way to open the dialogue between gun owners and non-gun owners about what is safe for kids and how can we work together.
Gun accidents in the home are a tragically real risk. A recent New York Times article detailed the devastating losses gun accidents inflict on families. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that fatal gun wounds in children are often inflicted by friends after gaining access to unsecured weapons. These kinds of tragedies are entirely preventable by simply taking the time to secure weapons away from children. I believe it is the responsibility of every parent to minimize the risk of gun accidents for their own child and conversations about firearms before playdates is a useful way to do that.
Since Sandy Hook, I’ve been asking other parents about guns in the home and telling them about my own firearm status. I’ve spoken with friends who know their stuff about guns to find out what they consider safe enough for kids and I’ve read up on gun safety criteria from groups like the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is the trade association for American firearms manufacturers. I’ve had a bunch of conversations with parents about guns in the home and you know what? It’s not nearly as awkward of weird as I was afraid it would be. No one has yelled at me. No one has gotten offended.
From my own experience and from checking out the guidance at sites like Project Childsafe, Center to Prevent Youth Violence and Gun Safe Mom, I’ve pulled together these tips for have the conversation about guns in the home and what safety criteria to ask about:
Have The Conversation:
- Leave the Kids Out of It: These are adult conversations. Do it with the kids out of the way and before a playdate is scheduled to occur.
- Know Your Limits: Have a set definition of “safe enough” in you mind when you begin the conversation. Are you comfortable with guns in a home where your child will play? If so, what safety precautions do you want there to be? Have a polite responses prepared for any situation.
- Don’t Judge: This isn’t about how you feel about them owning guns. This is about how safe you feel your child can be in the presence of guns. Little kids are curious and if you don’t think your child can restrain that curiosity about a weapon, let the gun owner know.
- Make The First Move: When dealing with a family for the first time, invite the child over to your house first. When you issue the invitation, volunteer information about your firearm status. I like to add it to a list of other safety assurances such as saying “We don’t have any pets, no firearms in the home, and I make sure medicines are locked up. Does your child have any food restrictions or allergies I should know about?”. If you own weapons, share what safety precautions you take to safeguard your own children.
- Be Respectful: When you ask another family about their firearm status, make it clear that they don’t have to share. If they decline to answer your questions, accept that graciously and work with them to come up with playdates that are comfortable for both families.
- Get into Detail: If someone is willing to discuss their firearms, ask them about safety precautions. Is the weapon loaded? Is it in a lockbox? Is ammunition kept with the gun or separately? How much do children know about weapons in the home? Some families may not want to share this information and that’s their prerogative. Have polite, planned response for situations where you can’t get enough information to be comfortable.
- Don’t Lecture: Once again, this isn’t about your feelings about gun ownership. It’s about safety for your kids. Don’t suggest the family needs to change how they do things. Just explain that your child needs certain safety conditions met and it would be better for everyone if the playdate happened elsewhere.
- If You Have To Say No: If you find yourself too uneasy to allow you child to go to a house, make it about your child, not a political statement about guns. Try saying something along the lines of “I’ve talked to my child about gun safety but I’m afraid he’s just so curious about guns that he’d forget the rules. This isn’t something he encounters every day. I think it would be safest to avoid the situation until he’s a little more reliable about remembering safety protocols. Until then, can we meet up at the park or my place for playdates?”
Safe Storage Guidance
- Denial of Access:The American Academy of Pediatrics, Project Childsafe (a program of the National Shooting Sports Foundation) and Gun Safe Mom all say the safest storage option in a home with children is that firearms should be locked up and ammunition locked up in a separate place. Both weapons and ammunition should be inaccessible to children.
- Education: The Eddie Eagle Program run by the NRA promotes educating children them on gun avoidance. Children are told to stop if they see a gun, do not touch it, and find an adult immediately.
It’s Up To You
What you decide is the safest course of action for your child is personal. Take an honest stock of your child’s personality and life experience and decide for yourself what is safe enough in terms of potential exposure to guns. At the end of the day, you can’t expect other parents to change their gun-handling to accommodate the safety requirements of your child. Their safety is your responsibility and you have to make the final choices on what kind of exposure to firearms is safe for them.
Photo credit: iStock
This post is a collaborative project with the Maryland chapter of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America.