What to do if someone has an unlocked gun at home

The texts I exchange with other parents usually focus on carpool pick-up times, food allergies, sleepovers, and deciphering what my 12-year-old son meant when he muttered—in response to my insistence he tell me something about his day at school—“I learned stuff and made a food thing with clay.”

I know I should also ask these parents a tougher question, particularly when my son is going to their homes: Do you have a gun in the house, and is it secured?

Yet this question is, for me, an incredibly uncomfortable one to pose. It feels invasive, judgmental. It makes my hands clammy. Even texting, which typically calms my social anxiety and allows for a nonconfrontational approach, feels awkward. Yet I know I need to ask, given the sobering statistics:

Guns outnumber people in this country. More than 4.6 million American children live in homes with at least one unlocked gun. And about 70% of unintentional shootings by children occur in the home.

Yet I still hesitate to ask other parents and caregivers about whether they have guns and whether those guns are secure. And I’m not proud of that. So I decided to seek advice from Victor M. Fornari, MD, MS, vice chair and child & adolescent psychiatry director of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Northwell Health.

“I used to tell parents there were three things to worry about when it came to raising children, and ‘putting dirty socks in the laundry basket’ is not one of them,” he says. “The three important things are: Kids should always wear a seatbelt in the car; they should never drink and drive or ride with a driver who has been drinking; and they should use a condom when having sex. But now we’ve added a fourth item to that list: Kids should be aware of the dangers of guns—particularly unsecured ones—and know to stay away from them to be safe.”

The conversation is, of course, challenging, he says. He likens it to the way many families approached the topic of safe sex before the AIDS epidemic.

“When AIDS happened we learned that we have to talk about sex,” Fornari explains. “I spent five years putting condoms on bananas in high schools, telling the kids not to blush. We put out bowls of free condoms. Necessity said we had to do that. So just like that, we have to find a meaningful way to have discourse about the importance of gun safety both with our children and with other adults.”

However, he acknowledges that the topic can be uncomfortable.

“The conversation about guns is a challenge,” he says. “It’s part of a new sensibility; it’s not something we’re accustomed to. But we certainly know that it can be very dangerous to have an unsecured gun. So it is a fair thing to ask about.”

Even asking my 12-year-old about it is awkward. A recent attempt went like this:

Me: “Hey, buddy. I know this is random, but I’m curious: Do any of your friends have real guns in their houses?”

My son, pulling off his headphones and momentarily looking away from his video game: “What? No.”

Me: “If one of them was like, ‘Hey, look, I have a gun—’”

My son: “What?? They wouldn’t say that! Like, ‘Oh, look at me, I have a gun?’ That’s weird!”

End of conversation.

If you want to be more successful in your attempt with another adult, and going the direct route gives you hives, Fornari suggests starting with something of an apology.

“You could say, ‘Forgive me for asking, but I’m concerned and want to be responsible: Do you have firearms in your home, do children have access to them, and are the guns locked?’” he suggests. Texting (my go-to), or emailing your questions and concerns is another good route.

And if, after you ask the question, you find the answer is that there is an unsecured gun in the home, you may be left wondering what next?

Fornari suggests taking a deep breath and remembering that the conversation shouldn’t be about judgment or vilifying anyone for having a gun. Instead, your next step may be as simple as thanking them for telling you and asking whether the adult would be able to lock and safely secure the gun while your child is there. If the answer is no, then there are a few options parents may want to consider. The first is asking to accompany your child on that play date so that they’re not left unsupervised. Alternately, it may be best to suggest another, more neutral meeting place altogether—like a park or other similar location.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t hurt to have the conversation—no matter the outcome—and that it doesn’t have to be something that becomes confrontational or uncomfortable.

“Our society is struggling with what the language should be, and how best to communicate it,” Fornari says. “The language of that will evolve. The more we talk about, the more comfortable it will become.”

He adds that he hopes we, as a nation, “can develop a good public health message about how to really ask the questions in a sensitive, respectful way, without judgment and without alarm. Just factual. We say, ‘Always wear a seat belt.’ Now we need to say the same thing about gun safety.”

“We’re not necessarily trying to stop people from having guns; we just want to make sure the guns are safe so kids don’t get hurt.”