How to Talk to Other Parents About Having Guns in the House

The benefit of the awkward conversation may be that play date injuries are never worse than a skinned knee.

(Photo: Laurent Hammels/Getty Images)

Nov 26, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

Whether you’re a parent who doesn’t (and would never) own a gun or part of a family that loves hunting with a dozen weapons under lock and key, there’s an awkward conversation worth having with other parents.

If your kid is going to be spending much time at a friend’s house, it’s up to you to ask the other family: Do you keep guns at home? If so, how do you store them?

About 75 percent of children between the ages of 5 to 14 know where guns are kept in their home, according to the ASK campaign, making it all too easy for kids to access the weapon if it’s not locked up properly. To top it off, the epidemic of gun violence among America’s youth is a public health crisis, experts say, with more kids dying because of guns than from pneumonia, cancer, or any other major illness. Guns are the number two cause of death for children in the U.S., trumped only by the number who die in car accidents. In 2012, 2,694 kids and teens were killed by guns, and 110 of those incidents were unintentional shootings, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The actual number of unintentional shootings may be a lot higher, though, said Jennie Lintz, director of public health and safety at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. That’s partly because the cause of death is decided by local coroners, and their parameters for distinguishing between a murder and an unintentional shooting vary dramatically from place to place. A 2013 report from The New York Times estimates that unintentional or “accidental” shootings actually occur twice as often as records indicate.

The good news is, gun deaths are largely preventable, and they can be avoided through simple tactics such as secure storage. If you can’t forgo keeping a weapon in the house, guns should be kept unloaded, in a locked safe, with the ammunition stored separately, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Many parents just never think to ask about guns,” Lintz said. “The biggest barrier for most parents is the awkwardness of it.”

Here’s how to tackle the difficult conversation.

Remember: You Wouldn’t Leave Your Kids Alone With Porn

When you drop your kid off at a friend’s house, you often ask the friend’s parent a million questions: Is your family dog-friendly? How do you monitor Internet usage? Is the backyard pool properly fenced in? It helps to think about gun safety as you would any of these other household risks, said Lintz. Add “Is there an unlocked gun in your house?” to your standard list of inquiries.

“The difference between a gun in the house and a pool in the backyard is that we just don’t have the conversation,” she said.

This Isn’t About Politics—It’s About Safety

There’s no magic way to ease into a conversation about safe gun storage, said Lintz, but there are a few icebreakers that may help get the ball rolling. First, know that you’re not alone. No matter how liberal or conservative a parent may be, most agree that their kids’ safety is the number one priority.

“Regardless of your political beliefs around guns, the overwhelming majority of parents believe kids shouldn’t have unsupervised access to firearms,” Lintz said.

Prefacing the question with “My pediatrician told me…” or “I saw in the news the other day…” can help you begin the conversation, she suggested. Or, putting the focus on your own child by saying something like, “My kid gets into everything…”

Although most parents will take this dialogue in stride, said Lintz, if a gun-owning parent does get angry or defensive when you broach the subject of gun safety, that’s a red flag, and this may be a place you don’t want to leave your child.

You Can’t Pick Out a Gun Owner Based on Appearance

Gun ownership varies dramatically between regions, with higher numbers in the South and lower numbers in the Northeast, said Lintz. More than half of adults in Wyoming, Montana, Alabama, and West Virginia own guns; only 10 percent of people in Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Jersey own a firearm.

Does this mean you shouldn’t bother to ask if you live on the Eastern seaboard? Not necessarily. But states with higher rates of gun ownership typically have higher rates of gun deaths, Lintz said.

Still, there’s no easy way to determine who has a gun in the house unless you ask. Overall, one out of three homes in the U.S. has a gun in it, said Lintz, and up to half of them aren’t stored properly.

Pay It Forward

You inherently teach every parent that you ask about guns that it’s a valuable conversation to have. If more parents talk openly about safe gun storage, the less awkward the conversation will be, said Lintz, and hopefully, more people will follow proper protocol to safely store their firearms. America’s violent crime rates are actually on the decline, according to multiple reports, and the number of children dying from gun violence has been falling as well. But progress is relatively slow, advocates say, and the key to true gun-safety reform is approving tighter legislation and educating the public. Although a handful of states have criminal penalties for negligent gun owners, all states should follow suit, according to Everytown for Gun Safety.

Informing people about proper gun safety and storage is also key, and the Brady Campaign points to efforts such as “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” (the anti–drunk driving campaign) as a successful model for how to change the public’s perception about a risky behavior.