The moment we hold our newborns, we realize that we’d do anything to protect them. That’s why it’s so hard to let them out of our sight, even as they get older. How can we protect them if they’re not with us? How can we trust other people to be as vigilant as we are when it comes to their safety?
We can’t—not really—but we still try. So we ask questions. Lots and lots of questions.
We ask babysitters if they know CPR. We ask neighbours if their dogs are friendly. We ask grandparents to move low-lying glass objects to high shelves so they don’t become Frisbees. We ask daycare providers whether their facilities are nut-free, and we ask camp directors how they’ll supervise field trips. We may even ask fellow parents to avoid screen time and sugar at play dates.
But chances are, there’s one question that most of us aren’t asking, and it’s putting our children in serious danger: “Do you have a gun in your house, and if so, is it safely secured in a lock box?”
My son started kindergarten this year, and I have been asking that question to every single parent whose house he’s going to for a play date. It’s awkward, I’m not going to lie, and I stress out about it every time I say or type the words, but I do it anyway. Why? Partly because of these statistics, garnered from a study in the journal Pediatrics:
Each year, an average of 5,790 children in the United States are treated for gun-related injuries.
Close to 1,300 children die every year from these incidents, making guns the third leading cause of death for children.
Approximately 21 percent of those injuries are unintentional.
Perhaps not surprisingly, boys are overwhelmingly the victims and perpetrators of gun violence, accidental and otherwise.
And let’s not forget about the stories behind these horrific statistics. The toddler who found a gun while looking through his mother’s purse and accidentally shot himself. The second-grader who accidentally shot his best friend during a play date. The teenager who was “goofing around” and accidentally killed his friend.
Yes, they were all accidents, but they were all preventable accidents. It’s up to you to do everything you can to prevent a similar tragedy.
Here’s the thing: You cannot simply trust that people are responsible gun owners just because they’re parents. People are people, and they don’t necessarily change after they have kids. You would hope that they wouldn’t drink and drive…or sexually harass their coworkers…or be the obnoxious jerks they’ve always been…or leave their guns out. But as we know from the news and from personal anecdotes, this isn’t always the case. In fact, a recent study suggests that more than half of gun owners in the US do not safely store all their guns. More than half.
When I mentioned all of this to my own mother, she reminded me of this story: When I was about my son’s age, she took me to a play date at the home of a woman she casually knew. There was a loaded gun on the table. When my mom asked about it, the other woman said, “Oh, don’t worry. My daughter knows not to play with it.” As my mother rightly said, “Well, my daughter doesn’t,” and that was the last time we had a play date with those people.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but children are children. They shouldn’t have access to guns. I don’t care how many times you’ve had “the talk” with them. I don’t care if you’ve taken them to a shooting range and taught them about gun safety. They are still children. They have poor impulse control. They have lapses in judgment. They forget. They are curious. They show off. They think they are superheroes. They do not truly understand the damage a gun can do.
But we do. And we shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it.
Still, like I said earlier, it isn’t quite that easy. Gun ownership in this country is an incredibly touchy subject, and at the mere suggestion of regulation (federal or personal), people can start screaming about Second Amendment rights. Plus, they might get defensive if they think you’re criticizing their parenting skills.
So, I try to bring it up in the most non-inflammatory way possible. If I can, I’ll host the first play date and send an introductory e-mail that asks about any food allergies or aversions. Then I’ll add this: “Also, just so you know, we don't have any guns in the house. I know it sounds crazy to put that in an e-mail about a kindergarten play date, but it's something that I'm starting to mention and also ask about now that the kids are getting older and are, of course, very curious. Hopefully you don't think I'm completely nuts, and it's just one less thing for you to worry about.”
I put a little smiley face at the end of it, too. As if a silly emoji and a bumbling, oh-I’m-so-crazy-with-my-crazy-question tone is going to lessen the awkwardness of my e-mail. (But weirdly enough, it does, so try it!)
I’ve been so relieved that the moms I’ve spoken with have responded well to my query. They weren’t gun owners—though I would have been OK if they were, as long as they had their guns safely stored—and beyond that, they all said that they were going to start asking that question. In fact, they couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to them before.
I did get slight pushback on this…from a few dads whose wives mentioned this new play-date rule. They worried that the gun question was a loaded one, so to speak, and that it could offend other parents, alienating potential friends for their kids and for them. Ask it and you risk being that parent.
I was actually happy to hear that opinion because it solidified my point of view: I am A-OK being that parent. If someone felt uncomfortable being asked a simple safety question, we were not going to be friends and my son sure as hell wasn’t going to be spending any time at their house.
It may sound harsh, but it really is that simple. My son’s life is too important.