Asking friends about guns is like asking about their underwear. Not in the pediatric office, but at home, on the street, and in the neighborhood. Hear me out…
My next-door-neighbor (NDN) is a stay at home dad (SAHD). On most days, he runs his household and wrangles 8 and 6-year-old boys until his wife joins him after work. The three (or four) of them seem to weave and pedal through life, on and off their bikes. I can see them coming and going throughout the day; it’s my crystal ball of sorts as to what life with 2 boys may look like about 5 years from now…
Last Friday, NDN approached me from his porch. We often talk, porch-to-porch, about life, the trees, our favorite noodle shop, or the weather. Last Friday, it was different. He said, “You should write a post about gun violence.” I said, “Yeah, I know, I should write about 2 million posts…”
But then he framed the issue for me. And I knew he was right.
His 8-year-old had just come home from a friend’s house. While playing at the boy’s home, the two 8 year-olds came upon a BB gun. They thought it was loaded. Knowing exactly what it was, NDN’s son convinced his friend not to touch it (or so the story goes). He came home and told his dad the saga. NDN was stunned. It’s always what we don’t think of that takes our breath away while raising kids. NDN never thought he left his child in a dangerous situation when he dropped him off to play. Hearing about the BB gun made him wonder if he should be asking more questions.
As I got to thinking about it, I went back out to the porch. We talked about it a bit more. My kids are young; we don’t drop them off yet for play dates. But suddenly, I instantly knew the dilemma. First on the list of questions for a generous family, that would invite my child into their home for an afternoon, wouldn’t be, “Do you have a gun in the house?” It’s a seemingly personal question for some reason. Almost like, “Does your wife wear lacy underwear?”
Point is, it feels like a personal question. But it’s also a practical one. And it may be a necessary one, too. Over 8 million children have access to firearms in our country. The AAP says, “Even if you don’t have guns in your own home, that won’t eliminate your child’s risks. Half of the homes in the United States contain firearms, and more than a third of all accidental shootings of children take place in the homes of their friends, neighbors, or relatives.”
NDN helped drive this point home.
Of course, we do all sorts of the uncomfortable things to protect our children. It starts with pregnancy, followed closely by losing all sense of a personal life while raising toddlers, and rounds off with paying for college. But asking about guns in the homes of their friends is one of those things I’ve never thought to talk about in clinic. Thanks, NDN-SAHD for the perspective. Please let us know how it goes when you ask about the gun at the next play date.
Mama Doc’s Tips for Protecting Your Children From Firearms:
- It’s my belief that guns have no place in a home with children. I remember the 16-year-old who shot himself in high school. I remember my middle school student who was shot and killed just outside the school in 1997. Before you hold up your NRA signs, and/or start your internal rant, I’ll say this: if there is a gun in a home and I’m (or you’re) not going to change that, there are things you can do to protect yourself, your children, and your community. Read these tips.
- Get over it being awkward to ask about guns. Asking saves lives. It isn’t underwear. Ask supervising parents if they have guns in their home before play dates or sleepovers. Don’t make assumptions; ask relatives, too.
- If a gun is in your home, it should be stored UNLOADED, in a LOCKED case, and inaccessible to children. Ammunition should be stored separately. Hide the keys to the case.
- BB guns are guns. And if your child has access to the internet, they can make one. I googled BB gun and found all sorts of info. Look at this make your own BB gun video. The reality is that it is your job to talk with children about guns–early and often.
Tamra B says
THANK YOU! for talking about this. I too felt it was a personal question and thought adults would bring it up to you…but not the case in my situation. I found out after 2 years of sharing a nanny and building a friendship with them that they had a gun in the house! How did I found out? I watched their kids over the weekend, why they were on a vacation and dropped them off and there it was a note to the FT nanny about not letting the kids play near the safe because of the gun. I was stunned when I read the note and quickly asked my husband if he knew? They never once brought it up and shame on me for not asking!
the NDN says
Glad you took my story to your blog! I do think this is an important issue, especially when your kids are of age to be dropped off for a play date. It does feel like it is a private issue to ask if there is a gun in the home but not to, elevates a potential risk. The other thing to note is that the people you least expect to have a gun may often be the the ones that own one. To follow up, I did raise the issue with the parents of the my son’s friend, they were deeply apologetic and assured me the BB gun would be locked up. Also, empower you child to know what to do if they do encounter a gun in someone else’s house. I’ve role-played the situation and obviously it paid off in this case. Thanks!
I think those 8 million are in Texas where we live. I share your feelings, SMD, and it’s just a matter of politely asking before a play date. There are those who get offended but living by our own standards is something that all parents have to face at some point.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Dr V, you bring up a good point about perception and assumptions. I just talked about this with a patient’s mom here in clinic. You may live in a community where you perceive guns are all around (your hood in Texas, for example). It may be socially acceptable or the “norm.”
But there are other areas where it is less mainstream to have a gun. It may be more dangerous for families in those areas (like Seattle) as we parents assume families don’t have guns and therefore don’t ask about them.
A great reminder that we all need to ask, even if we feel our friends/neighbors/relatives don’t have firearms. I’m sure we’ll all be surprised once and a while.
Heather Cooper says
Great topic! Also check out these resources we’ve written here at Seattle Children’s:
Guns in the Home http://www.seattlechildrens.org/pdf/ce355.pdf
Teens, Depression and Guns http://www.seattlechildrens.org/pdf/CE457.pdf
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Thanks for these great hand-outs, Heather. I especially like the hand out on teens and depression.
THANK YOU for this important message. Unfortunately, a gun in the home increases the risk of homicide and suicide. Guns are also a desired object of burglars, so instead of adding protection a gun in the home makes you more or a target.
Guns and children simply don’t mix. Every day in this country children are injured and even killed in unintentional firearm shootings. To see some examples of this visit:
John Neff says
This blog on guns stimulated a childhood memory. My dad was a pacifist and certainly never had a gun at home. We lived in Guadalajara, Mexico where he was a co principal of school. Our home connected to the home of the other co principal through a common protected patio where we were free to roam. Literally my earliest memory was when I was 2-3 years old. I remember walking through our patio into the home and study of our good friend. I remember opening the top desk drawer and finding a pistol with the cartridge open and bullets partially inserted. I remember trying to get the bullets in their slots to close the cartridge. Then I remember adults finding me before I could load the gun. I remeber the commotion as the adults got the gun out of my hands. Such events can happen so quickly in the hands of a small curious child. I have no trouble advocating for locked boxes and in fact removal of all guns, Thanks for writing this blog. John
John G says
It is my belief that firearms *with no firearms safety training* have no place in a home, with children or not. You see all these stories of people (not just children) accidentally shooting people. Guns don’t shoot people or go off by themselves, they shoot people when people point them at someone and pull the trigger. And people who are not exposed to any firearms training only know what they learn from TV and movies, and similar to your drowning article, what is shown on tv is inaccurate extremely dangerous. And yes, like prescription drugs, alcohol, and anything else you don’t want children getting into, firearms should be locked up.
off the top of your head, do you know the rules of firearm safety?
Depending on where you learn them, there are 3 or 4 rules. I prefer Jeff Cooper’s 4:
1) always treat a gun as if it is loaded
2) never point a gun at something you aren’t willing to destroy
3) keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on your target and you are ready to fire
4) know your target and its foreground and background
Knowing and following any of one those first 3 would prevent almost every firearm accidental shooting.
Even if you don’t have firearms in your home, your children should at least go through something like the NRA’s Eddie the Eagle program, which, from your story, looks like the NDN’s children may have been exposed to: “STOP! Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult.” Without some exposure to what they should or should not be doing, children will be inquisitive, and will replicate the only thing they have been trained by: television and movies.
John G says
Also, when people hear, “Do you have a gun in the house?”, they get defensive, and their response will probably be “Why do you ask?”, and the discussion will roll on from there….
A better question would be, “Are your prescription drugs, alcohol, and guns safely stored?”
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
I agree with your advice on phrasing the question to be more inclusive, John G. I just wonder, how many things we will need to include in the list?
It reminds me of how I feel about doing well child check ups. So many things to ask about regarding safety, so little time…
Thanks for the comments and your perspectives.
Very interesting post and discussion. This has me hyperventilating for what might happen in 3 years from now. I fear for so many things already: cars, drugs, sex predators, but THIS has me totally freaked out. I work with people who are regular and avid hunters, who are more respectful about the environment and the responsibilities of gun ownership than anyone I know. I have often wondered how they got through the days of their children being young and teens with the shotguns in the house.
I always ask the families where my kids will be going for play dates if there are guns in the house. And if the adults I’m asking have a problem with it, it pretty much tells me all I need to know – a parent getting defensive about my simple question means we have the play date at our house or a park all together. I figure I’ll never regret asking (even if it feels uncomfortable, as it does for my husband), but I would forever regret NOT asking!
Hi Wendy Sue!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Hi, DS. I miss you. I think it’s been YEARS since I’ve seen you.
I’m impressed by your practice of asking about guns. You’re an incredible model for us all and I will do my best to follow your lead…
I think of you sometimes when I’m talking with my kids on the phone from clinic. I’ll be talking loudly or asking silly questions. And I don’t care who hears me. I remember one night, around 8pm we were working together at Children’s and you phoned your children to say goodnight. You weren’t the least bit intimidated by the surroundings or the ears; you just talked/sang your kids goodnight, asking them about their evening and thoughts. It (obviously) really stuck with me. In a children’s hospital or clinic, those conversations define professionalism. You not letting medicine get in the way of loving your children, just the way you wanted to.
It was a wonderful way for me to know I could, and would, always do the same. Power on, DS!
Kathy Early says
Thanks for this post Dr. Swanson! As a parent of small kids who are no where near the play-at-a-friend’s house age, we hadn’t even thought of this issue. I’m sending links of this to everyone I know with kids, and reminding family members of this too. Thanks again.
Thank you! This post is a great reminder for me to continue asking questions, even as my kids get older. When they were little and going to new friends’ homes for playdates, I always made a point of asking parents some safety questions. I always tried to frame it with humor and apologize in advance for being “one of those moms,” but I have never had a parent act offended. In fact, most of them seemed relieved that I asked and said they needed to start asking more often, too.
I’m very greatful that I got those responses, because if any parent had seemed uncomfortable with my questions, I probably would have read that as a sign to not leave my kids with them.
Christine Vara says
Your NDN was right! Unfortunately, too many parents just don’t think to ask about guns in the homes where their children go to play. The concern here is that even if you choose not to have guns in YOUR home, chances are there are people you know (and may not realize) that have guns in THEIR home. Also, while it is certainly prudent to teach your child about gun safety, that alone is not enough.
Take for instance a recent tragedy where an 11 year old boy, Christopher Harr, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend. In an interview, Christopher’s father explains that he doesn’t blame the children for his son’s death. He blames the parents. (See his video interview here: https://www.wpxi.com/video/24885444/index.html) It is the parents’ responsibility to keep the gun secure and without amunition. In Christopher’s case there was one round in the chamber of an unsecure gun and even if Christopher knew enough not to touch it, that didn’t mean his friend did. Perhaps if his father would have thought to ask, Christopher might still be alive.
While I agree it can be awkward for some people to consider asking, I believe it is our parental responsibility. Your asking may just be what another parent needs to take the necessary steps to secure their weapon. Also, as another reader commented, if the parents you question are not receptive to your concerns, then let that be your guide.
For real solutions to gun violence, and for tips to make asking easier, check out the PAX organization’s “Asking Saves Kids” Campaign at https://askingsaveskids.com/ask/index.html. Also their “SPEAK UP” campaign is a critical message which empowers our children to speak up to prevent gun violence in their school or community. Unfortunately, statistics show that over 50% of kids know of an incident where someone brought a weapon to school. Check out PAX for more shocking statistics and great suggestions to keep our kids safe!
Tango Down says
There are a lot of things that have been posted in the comments about this topic. Some I agree with, some are absurd. I’ll approach this topic from both sides (that of a child that was raised around weapons all my life & that of an adult that worked in drug interdiction in the past).
I was raised around weapons of all kinds pretty much all of my younger years starting at age 4 when I used to watch my Dad and Grandfather shoot & plink (target practice).
At age 6, I got my first BB gun, Daisy rifle. Yes, I made some mistakes and I learned many lesson, some very hard lessons. One of my greatest lessons was learned from shooting a small bird that had landed on a wire. That day I learned the emotional guilt of taking a life, even if it was only a bird.
At age 9, I received my first .22 rifle, a beautiful Winchester! I was not allowed to shoot by myself, I ALWAYS had either my Dad or Grandfather accompanying me and helping to teach and guide me in learning the rules of using, having, and shooting a “real gun”.
At age 12, I was finally allowed to shoot, handle my own gun and to clean it by myself. I WAS NOT allowed to have my rifle out unless an adult was present though! This was a “privilege” and I understood that all my future shooting and have “my own gun” relied upon me and practicing what I had learned. Was I some whiz kid, some genius, some goody two-shoes? NO! I was your typical kid back then and I made my mistakes but I made them in my younger years with supervision and good guidance, I learned from my minor mistakes and learned to NEVER do them again. By the time I got my first rifle, I knew more than most teens do now about a gun. I learned that mistakes can kill and caution is ALWAYS required!
At age 14, I was finally allowed and trusted to handle my gun without supervision! Everything I had practiced and learned over my young life had lead to that moment in life and I knew that if I made any mistake that I could kill someone or myself, That one incident, when I was 6, with the small bird, had carried through in my young life into my teen years.
I hunted for many years and learned that hunting for food was OK but to “hunt for sport” was NOT! Everything that I hunted over the coming years was eaten. Additionally, over the coming years, I learned that there’s varmit hunting to rid the land of rodents, vermin and dangerous animals such as rabid dogs and animals with rabies.
At age 16, I learned about self defense! Up to this point I thought that I had been exposed to most all there was to owning and shooting, I was wrong. I was reading about someone that was minding their own business. literally and a thief came in brandishing a handgun, threatening the store owner and demanding money. The store owner though had his CDWL (Concealed Deadly Weapons License). The would-be robber was surprised by the store owners rapid deployment of his sidearm, without even having to fire a single shot, the robber fled but was caught a block away by the police. This was the beginning of a new chapter in becoming a law abiding gun owner.
Over the coming years, I read all I could, studied and practiced my open carrying of a weapon on our family property.
At age 18, I received my first pistol, a Ruger P85 Mark 2! In my home state, you can now legally OC (open carry) a sidearm but you can’t legally purchase one till age 21.
At age 20, I graduated college and headed to Southern Florida for a change of pace and a great job. I can’t go into detail about much of what happened at this point in my life save to say that I had some lucky breaks and knew the right people. I worked in drug interdiction for a few years and as such was allowed to CC (Conceal Carry). I received ALOT of training during those years and learned even more than I ever had but underneath it all, I realized that it all started back when i was a 6 year old kid.
To jump forward a decade, by the time I left my career in florida and moved back to my home state, they had pass laws to allow for concealed carry. I, of course, applied and was granted a CDWL in my home state and that brings me up to the present.
You might be asking how any of this relates to this topic? It’s simple! Guns ARE NOT the evil that they have been made out to be by the liberal, left-wing agenda policy makers in the government!! A gun is not able to hurt anyone unless someone uses it.
If our children are taught from a very young age about weapons (guns), if they are taught the rules and repercussions from an early age, they will learn an appreciation and respect for guns. Underneath it all, the reason we’re having such an issue with children and weapons is due to the lack of parental supervision and oversight, a lack of taught rules and respect for weapons and a strong moral and ethical background to build upon.
The vast majority of people, children included, that are injured, harmed, and/or killed by weapons are those that have been taught to FEAR the gun! Those that are taught to RESPECT the gun are those that will not be injured or killed because they KNOW WHAT NOT TO DO!
As for people asking the owner of the house if they “have a gun”, as mentioned in this topic. It’s more an issue of what or how the owner of the gun intends to use the weapon. I’ll assume that ANY gun owner, like myself, that owns a handgun/pistol/sidearm has it for one reason, SELF DEFENSE! In this case, I can understand why they’d be apprehensive in revealing if they do have a weapon. It’s a self defense issue. Sadly, in this day and age, we don’t know who we live next to and revealing to “anyone” that you do have a weapon is a major risk.
I can understand why parents in this situation would be concerned but IF the NDN is a responsible gun owner, you’ll NEVER know it! You’ll NEVER see or even suspect that they carry a sidearm on them. it will be out of sight and out till it’s called for.
A wonderful reminder to have these conversations with the families of our kids’ friends. I love how a girlfriend has handled this topic for years… With a laugh she opens with, “Oprah made me promise to ask you…” and she has yet to offend anyone =)
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Love it, Nicole! I tell parents often to use me as an excuse when it comes to keeping those with colds or illnesses away from new babies, etc, or when they have to defend choices like rear-facing car seats or back positioning in the crib to grandmothers or nay-sayers on safety with different ideas….
A short but nice piece about gun safety and playmates…https://www.parentmap.com/blog/9801/asking-the-loaded-question-does-your-family-keep-a-gun-in-the-house
When we had company, I made sure my guns were out of circulation. Problem solved. Raised three kids with military rifles, shotguns, pistols, .357 magnuma nd the biggest problem I had was the cost of black powder. A drop of common sense equals no problem.