Asking about guns need not be rude
It's the fourth week of school and your first-grader has an invitation to play with a new friend. For the first time, you don't know the parents of a playmate. Are you going to ask, "Is there a gun in your home?"
This was once a subject that rarely made a parent's radar screen. For most of us, Columbine changed that. For Laura Hill of Wellesley, it was something closer to home. Last spring, a mother and daughter attending a recital in the Wellesley middle school auditorium found a loaded gun lodged in one of the seats. It had been dropped by a Town Meeting member nearly a month earlier.
"Living in Wellesley, I never thought about people owning guns or that my child might be at a home where there was a gun. Now it's not so easy to dismiss," said Hill, who has three children, ages 7, 5, and 1. Still, she has never asked a parent if there are guns in his or her home.
"It feels rude," she said. "It's awkward."
Carol Price of Manchester, Md., has a sobering retort: "It may be uncomfortable to ask that question, but it's a lot more uncomfortable to pick out a casket for your child." Tragically, she knows firsthand.
Two years ago, her 13-year-old son, John, was shot in the head when he was playing at a neighbor's house. The 9-year-old brother of his friend had brought out his father's gun and playfully put it to John's head. When police searched the house, they found 10 other guns, all legal but all easily accessible. Some, like the one that killed John, were loaded.
"We had been neighbors for five years, our kids were friends, but I never knew they kept guns," said Price. When John went to the neighbor's that day, she had called to make sure they weren't watching an R-rated video. It never occurred to her to ask about guns.
"It's a safe, middle-class neighborhood," she said.
It's OK to ask
As honorary chairwoman of a national public service campaign called ASK (Asking Saves Kids), Price hopes to normalize asking the one question that would have saved her son's life: "Do you have guns in your home?" Launched three weeks ago, the campaign is co-sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics and PAX (www.PAXUSA.org), a national movement to end gun violence.
"You can't know for sure what's inside someone else's home, not even a close friend's, unless you ask," said PAX founder Dan Gross. He usually convinces skeptical parents about the value of ASK when he presents this chilling statistic: 40 percent of American households with children have guns, and 43 percent of those guns are unlocked and loaded.
He doesn't disagree with Hill, however, that it can feel rude to ask.
"It's because of the politics that surround this issue," Gross said. "In fact, it has nothing to do with politics. This is a preventative safety measure, no different than making sure your kids don't run out into the street."
It's easier if you preface it by saying, "I don't mean to offend you, but I have a few safety questions I ask before my child plays somewhere for the first time," said Carol Silverman Saunders, author of "Safe at School" (St. Martin's).
Consider it a red flag if a parent is defensive, offended, or refuses to answer, said Saunders. Six years ago, when her son was 8, he came home one day saying his playmate had shown him his father's gun. When she called, the mother said, "This is private family business." Saunders's son hasn't played there since (the playmate is welcome at her house), and Saunders now asks about guns when her son goes to someone's home for the first time.
If a family says they do have guns, parents have two choices, said Gross: politely decline the playdate ("I'm sorry, but this makes me nervous.") or ask about safety precautions.
"What you want to hear," he said, "is that guns are locked and stored separately from ammunition [as state law requires] and that children don't know where the key is kept."
This is not an issue only for parents of young children. When it comes to guns, children of every age have developmental characteristics that contribute to risk, said pediatrician Howard Spivak, chief of pediatric and adolescent medicine at the Floating Hospital for Children at New England Medical Center. For instance:
2- to 7-year-olds are innately curious. Not only would they be drawn to a gun lying around but they also are uninhibited to the point of being nosy. "I'm never surprised to hear about a 3-year-old who opens drawers or pokes into closets, even in someone else's house," Spivak said. That puts them at a high risk for stumbling onto a handgun. In the course of regular office visits, he always asks parents if there are guns in the home and urges them to ask about guns at playmates' homes. As chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' taskforce on violence, he urged the organization to co-sponsor ASK.
8- to 11-year-olds often are either in too much of a hurry or not able to think through consequences, but they are very anxious to imitate older kids in an effort to be more grown up. In a culture that glamorizes gun violence, that's a dangerous combination, said Spivak. "A 9-year-old who knows his father keeps a gun and knows he isn't supposed to touch it - in fact, can tell you he isn't supposed to touch it - can still march over to it and pick it up to show off to an older friend he admires," Spivak said. Price speculates that's what happened the day her son died.
12- to 15-year-olds typically crave adventure. "It's a time for lots of experimentation," said researcher Margaret Sagarese, co-author of "Parenting 911, How to Safeguard and Rescue Your 10- to 15-Year-Old" (Broadway Books). All it takes is a little prodding from a more adventuresome peer for the child you always trusted to search the house for the key to the gun rack, either to prove he's not a wimp or because he (or his friend) is drawn to dangerous activities. "The drive to belong is so powerful that it will override good judgment," she said.
Because this is an age when we tend to leave a child and friend home alone together, Sagarese urged parents to ask many questions of each other at the start of a school year and the first time new friends hang out together. She calls it teen-proofing. For instance: Do you keep your liquor locked? Do you monitor Internet use? Do you keep keys to extra cars hidden?
Needless to say, your 13- to 17-year-old won't like you asking these questions.
"He'll accuse you of not trusting him, of being the `only' parent who calls other parents, of being over-protective and embarrassing him," said Sagarese.
Here's the line of reasoning she takes with her own children: "My job is to take care of your life. I have to know if parents have guns/alcohol etc. not because I don't trust you but because I want to prevent you from having a confrontation with friends whose judgment might not be as good as yours."
Gross said responsible gun-owners rarely take offense at questions from other parents.
Mary (she does not want her name used), also of Wellesley, agreed. She has three young children and a husband who hunts. His shotguns are kept in a locked safe in an alarmed room.
"Would I be offended if someone asked" if her family had guns? she asked. "Absolutely not. I understand the motivation and I welcome the chance to show people how careful we are.
"I also absolutely will ask the question of other parents as my children get older. I know how real a possibility it is, that someone might have guns. I also know that not everyone is as safe about them as we are."
The typical fifth- or sixth-grader is more sensitive to what others think of him and more likely to believe those assessments than he will be at any other time in life. From "Our Last Best Shot, Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence," by Laura Sessions Stepp (Riverhead Books).