As the mom of an infant and a toddler, I have been both dreading and dying to hear another parent ask me one question: “Do you have a gun in your house?"
It’s a question Ann Marie Crowell of Saugus, Mass., told me she has wished every day for the past 17 years that she had thought to ask. “I said, ‘What if, what if, what if ... ?’ "
Her 12-year-old son, Brian, was hanging out at an older friend’s house nearby on Christmas Eve some years ago. Just before he was to head home, the friend pulled out his mom’s gun, presumed hidden well enough away from the teen’s curious eyes.
The friend had thought the gun was empty and was playing around pulling the trigger.
On the third click, a shot cut through Brian’s neck. That was the moment Crowell’s living, breathing son became a cold, lifeless statistic. He became one of the nine kids shot in the U.S. each day in gun accidents.
The last words Brian ever breathed were to his friend: “I can’t believe you shot me."
This weekend marks the official start of summer and the return of an awareness campaign, a partnership of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. It’s called ASK Day -- as in “asking saves kids.”
While the Brady organization generally engages in trying to effect change through policy, this campaign does not dabble in politics. Its purpose is straightforward and nonpartisan. The aim is to encourage parents to add gun safety to their list of questions.
“It’s not a political issue, a judgment issue,” said Dr. Tanya Altmann, an AAP spokeswoman and mother of two boys, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It’s a safety issue."
When should you start asking? Altmann said when your child is old enough that you’re leaving them at someone’s house -- be it a friend, family member or even a babysitter or home-based daycare.
In my three years of being a parent, with a number of kids running through my house, not a single parent has ever asked me about guns. They’ve asked about peanuts and our big screens.
And I haven’t said anything either. As someone who is relatively terrified of guns -- rather, what people can do with them -- I’ve felt like I’ve been sitting on this myself.
You see, my home is one of the one in three American homes with children that also house a gun.
I’m sure this will come as a shock to most people who know me. In fact, “gun owner” has never been a category I expected to be in. But marriage means the merging of lives -- and collections of everything, including guns.
To be clear, the weapon at our home is secured in a proper gun safe, with the ammunition stored separately. That is, after all, part of what responsible gun owners should do. But is that enough?
“When you have children in the home, you have a special obligation” to ensure their safety when it comes to a weapon, firearms trainer Dean Gamburd told me in a phone interview. He has taught people ranging from military to civilians about gun use and safety for the past 25 years.
“I don’t think gun owners do a good enough job educating their spouses and children about gun safety,” he said.
There are four things that weapons experts suggest parents teach kids to do if they come across a gun:
- Don’t touch it.
- Leave the area.
- Tell an adult.
However, it’s not enough to teach children and teens to simply stay away from guns, many child-development experts say. In fact, these kids might be more likely to handle a gun, according to the AAP.
And any comfort taken by the parents of toddlers in the belief that their children are not physically capable of firing a gun, might not be wise either.
“The truth is a 1½-year-old has enough strength in their thumb to operate a trigger,” said Gamburd, who is making sure his 3½-year-old granddaughter understands and has a healthy respect for the power of these weapons.
Deciding whether and when to talk with kids is debatable. While gun advocates generally encourage demystifying guns, there are studies that suggest the result is negligible.
But everyone seems to agree on a few things. First, guns should always be treated as if they are loaded. And second, it’s up to the adults, not kids, to be responsible.
Altmann said, “We really need to bridge away from the ‘talking to kids’ idea and make it clear that this is about adults locking up their guns and ammunition, and talking to other adults/parents about safe storage."
How do you even bring this up? I asked my network of friends and connections on Facebook.
“You just do,” said Jennifer McMillan, a Palm Desert former schoolmate and mother. “It’s your child and their safety. If another parent can’t understand this or gets offended by this, then that’s a good indication that your child shouldn’t be going over there.”
“Blame me,” Altmann tells her patients’ parents, if that makes it easier to ask their friends or their parents whether there is an unlocked, loaded gun in the home. Or use the news or another parent as your excuse, if you’re uncomfortable broaching the subject, she suggested.
“The stigma of talking about a gun has to go away,” said Crowell, who now spends a great deal of time helping care for her toddler granddaughter. “As a parent, you have the right to know if your child will be safe, as much as you have a right to be a gun owner.”
And as a gun-owning parent, I will begin to offer that we have a secured and safely stowed weapon, so that the parents of my children’s friends can make their own informed decisions. Even if they never think to ask.
Having awkward conversations is a hallmark of being a parent, whether they are with or about our children.
“If you’re afraid to ask the question,” Crowell said, “close your eyes and imagine your life without your child."
So, next time you ask about pets or pools or screen time, also ask about the guns.
Going through the growing pains of parenthood? Join me on the journey: @mmaltaisla