By Lora Shinn (originally published October 2018)
I grew up around guns, in a rural community where literally everyone owned one. My stepfather was a police officer and kept his personal and work weapons in a closet drawer. As older children and teens, my brothers and I quickly figured out where they were, and often would retrieve one to play with, pretending to shoot bad guys or threatening each other with, playing/not-playing.
We were always told to never touch the guns, but only the perfect child listens to a parent all the time.
We weren’t perfect children, but we were lucky children.
Asking about unsecured firearms is important to me, and I have many friends who own guns.
Seattle mom Gina Cardaman is a good friend who owns rifles and handguns. But I don’t worry when my kids are at her house. Her firearms are locked in a heavy basement safe, and only she and her husband have the combination. It’s large enough for rifles, but also stores items such as birth and marriage certificates. The family’s guns are locked inside, always.
She says she usually doesn’t offer up the fact that she owns guns due to the strong feelings many have around firearms. “I’ve seen hostile comments about gun owners on some Facebook discussions, one specifically where the mom said she would never let her children play at a household that had guns,” she says. “I didn’t know her personally, but I felt hurt by that level of judgment without evidence.”
In fact, Gina’s name is a pseudonym. She doesn’t want to attract the ire of those who don’t understand.
How to ask about guns
The best way to talk about guns is to do so in the context of other safety-related topics, say many experts. It also gives the other parent an opportunity to share his or her own safety concerns with you.
“Having good manners does not mean you have to forgo safety and concern for yourself and your children,” says Deborah King, a Seattle-based etiquette expert and founder of the Global Protocol, Etiquette and Civility Academy.
“Some people are afraid to state what their needs are out of fear of being viewed as impolite,” she says. “But kindness and respect starts with yourself, with having healthy boundaries and stating what you need.”
All safety-related discussions should be conducted in person or on the phone, says Elizabeth Bennett, Community Benefit director at Seattle Children’s Hospital, who has more than 25 years of experience working on injury prevention and child safety.
“Email is easy to misinterpret,” she says, and a way for the other parent to feel judged.
A good way to broach the subject is something like, “Emma has never been to your home. Can we talk a little bit about the dynamics of what that’s going to be like?”
When talking about guns, or any safety-related subject, give the other parent the sense that you’re on a team, and communicate your expectations. Something like “We don’t give our children soda” or “We don’t let them play on the internet” could be a good starting point.
Then, move into more difficult subjects, King says. “Here are some more serious concerns I have,” you might say, and bring up gun safety. She suggests that you couch it in your own concerns, not an accusatory manner.
“All parents want to keep their kids safe,” Bennett says. She suggests asking about access to guns along with a check-in regarding booster seats, bike riding, pools, allergies and internet safety. Also mention if you have a particularly inquisitive or impulsive child.
Then say, “I just want to check if there are any firearms in the home, and if they’re locked up.” or “My kid is curious, and I need to check if there are any unlocked firearms in the house.”
Gina would like to be asked about guns in the same straightforward way that parents ask about nuts or pets: “‘Do you have guns in your house? How are they stored?’ That simple. I would never be offended at the question, because it shows thoughtfulness and concern for safety.”
If there is an unlocked gun, a parent can offer to have the playdate at their house or visit a park.
Though necessary, this is a hard conversation, says Bennett. She recommends practicing with relatives or friends who are gun owners.
“It’s when there are prejudgments and assumptions that it becomes challenging,” Gina says. “We happen to be extremely liberal Democrats who practice attachment parenting. And, yes, we have guns.”
America has more guns than people, but Washington’s rate of firearm ownership is below the national average, and Seattle’s rate is even lower. Still, in King County, an estimated one-third of guns in homes are stored loaded; half of those guns are stored unlocked.
The ASK campaign, part of Brady United, provides guidance to parents about how to ask about unlocked guns.