By Christy Keating of The Heartful Parent and Savvy Parents Safe Kids
My daughter has made a new friend at school this year, and was just invited to her home for a movie night. She is thrilled and excited, but there are a number of questions I need answered before I can tell my daughter “yes.” You may have questions like this as well: who’s going to be home, who will be watching the kids, what is the plan, what movie will they be watching or games will they be playing, and what time is pickup? At Savvy Parents Safe Kids, we call these questions the Fab 5, but I’ve got to be honest—this list is incomplete. One critical question is missing: Do you have any firearms in your home?
I am well aware that guns are a taboo subject for many of us. In this day of severe polarization, this is an issue that seems to pit people against one another and promotes extremes: the “liberal crazies” who want to take all the guns versus the staunch Second Amendment “gun nuts” who pack heat wherever they go. And while people do exist on both ends of that spectrum, like most things, reality tends to lie in the middle; the research shows that most people support the right to own guns in some way, but also support laws and policies that promote responsible gun ownership and gun storage. The problem is that wherever you fall on the spectrum, our biases, fears, and discomfort with this subject are preventing us from having conversations that we really need to be having—both with our kids, and with each other.
It is no great surprise to any of us that guns can be dangerous: According to the Washington State Department of Health, 39 children (17 and under) died as a result of firearms in 2015 and an additional 30 were hospitalized; adding suicides increases that number threefold. That same year, according to the Washington State Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an estimated 150,000 adults in King County alone reported keeping a firearm unlocked; nationwide, research shows that 1.7 million children are living in homes with unsecured firearms. And the reality is that unlocked guns and children are a recipe for potential disaster. So what, as a parent, you can do? Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Talk to your kids, no matter their age. For younger kids, they should know that if they see a gun, they should not touch it and should tell an adult immediately. Reassure them that they will NOT get in trouble if they tell an adult what they’ve seen. For older children, it’s important that they know never to trust a friend who says a gun is unloaded or otherwise safe and that they, too, should leave the area and immediately tell an adult. Make sure that these conversations are not had only once: much like body safety talks, these conversations should happen again and again. Talking to our children is no guarantee of safety, but the more regularly you can remind your children of the rules around this, the better.
2. If you own firearms, understand that responsible storage by adult gun owners is critical to preventing children from getting ahold of those guns. Keep your own guns stored securely both at home and in vehicles.
3. When agreeing to take your child to another’s home for a playdate, party, study session or other activity, make sure you are adding “Do you have any firearms in your home, and if so, how are they stored?” to the list of questions you ask beforehand. Decide that your child’s safety is more important than any awkwardness such a conversation might cause.
4. Make asking—and sharing—this information normal. When we invite children to our home, I regularly let parents know the answers to the Fab 5 questions above, and volunteer the fact that we do not have any firearms in our home. It then makes it less strange when I ask those questions in return.
5. Don’t forget to ask these questions of family members—many unintentional shootings happen in the homes of relatives.
Keeping all of this in mind, it’s critically important that you don’t beat yourself up if you haven’t been asking these questions already. When we know better, we do better! It is NEVER too late to take steps to keep our kids safe. After all, even those of us “in the know” forget.
In fact, a couple of months ago, despite being diligent about it with families I don’t know, I realized that I had never had this conversation with many of the families that live on our street—I know better and yet familiarity had caused me to make potentially unsafe assumptions. And so, after getting over feelings of embarrassment, I sent a message to all the families saying “I was recently reminded of the critical importance of keeping our kids safe in our own homes and others--and so in an effort to normalize these important conversations, I’m letting you know that we do not have any firearms in our home. Do you have any guns, and if so, may I ask how they are stored?” The response was amazing—people were so incredibly appreciative of having the information, and more than willing to share the situation in their own homes. Several even thanked me for the reminder and said that they would start asking when they took their kids to other homes! This conversation does not need to be awkward if we remember that it’s not a judgement about whether or not people have guns—it’s just a question that gives us a chance to decide our level of comfort with how they’re stored.
In the end, I keep reminding myself that I’d rather ask than be sorry I didn’t. It may feel awkward, but I believe my child’s safety is worth it. I’m betting you do, too.
For more information, please visit www.besmartforkids.org or reach out to me for help having these and other important safety conversations with your kids!