Shedding The Stigma Of Gun Safety Conversations

Two headlines flickered across my phone this week, both related to gun violence. The first, an argument between adults that turned deadly, barely registered in my news-numbed mind. But the second—that one made me stop scrolling.

A 4-year-old had picked up an unsecured handgun and fatally shot herself.

Though we have no guns in my home, I am aware that I live in the only country where civilian-owned firearms outnumber civilians, at a rate of 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. Sometimes, I imagine I have heat-seeking vision and can see guns in the houses next door, down the street, and in friends’ neighborhoods. Some of these guns, in my mind, are safely secured in lock boxes, but others are tucked in kitchen drawers or other places that inquiring children can access.

In this reality, when my boys were both under 10, I’d wrestle with discomfort but eventually manage to ask playdate hosts if there were guns in the house. This was a conversation kept quiet from the boys; I worried that I’d scare them or, perhaps worse, make them curious to go looking for guns to play with.

As they’ve gotten older, I have stopped asking the question about guns, and I’m not sure why, given that they are now more likely to be left unattended by parents during hangouts. Do I assume my children know the dangers, given that they have heard—in whispers, in school, and in teachable moments with my husband and me—about school massacres? Is it because they participate in active-shooter drills where they cower in closets or ball up under desks? Or maybe I’m trying to maintain a sense of safety in the places where I feel that I can, because I’m concerned that if I put them on high alert in their friends’ homes my kids might never be able to relax. Or maybe the conversation is just too uncomfortable.

But then I’ll read a news story about an innocent child who innocently picks up a gun and loses her life. So I’ve been reconsidering.

When I text a parent to ask what time I should pick up my 12-year-old, I’ll write: “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask a somewhat uncomfortable question: Do you have guns in the house? If so, are they secured? Just want to check. Thanks for understanding.” The tone will be apologetic, because I’m still not fully confident about how to approach this kind of inquiry. It somehow feels too personal a question, like predicating my child’s participation in a playdate on the parent’s answer to the question of whether the parent has ever gone to rehab. It somehow feels like it isn’t my business.

But clearly it is my business.

What’s also my business: having a similarly uncomfortable exchange with my kids. I need to talk with them directly, particularly now that they are 10 and 12, about what to do if they encounter an unsecured gun. These are children who love the cartoonish violence of Marvel movies, the battles royale of Fortnite, and have tried riflery at sleepaway camp. Of course they’d be curious if they saw a real-life gun.

How do I tell them that they should not pick up, should not handle, should not even touch this shiny, heavy, dangerous thing?

I’ll talk about gun safety the same way I talk about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse. I’ll tell them to never trust a friend who says the gun is unloaded, and to see any gun in the home as unsafe. I’ll tell my older child, if he encounters a gun and is afraid to be honest with his friend, to pretend to get a text from me and high-tail it out of there.

And I’ll be here to talk about gun safety with—and for—my kids, no matter how awkward or weird the conversation may be. I know their lives depend on it.