The other day, the father of a classmate of my son’s called to ask if he could join a group of fourth-grade boys practicing a comedy sketch for their school’s talent show. Like any parent coordinating a child’s schedule, I asked the basics: What time? Where do you live? When should I pick him up? Then I stammered out a final question, apologizing in advance for its personal nature: Do you keep guns in your home?
Long pause. “No,” he replied, “but it’s a valid question.”
The events of the past few days only reinforce the need to ask these questions. Last week, a 4-year-old picked up a loaded gun at a cook-out and accidentally killed the wife of a sheriff’s deputy in Tennessee. And on Monday, another 4-year-old shot and killed a 6-year-old friend as they played outside in a New Jersey neighborhood. “I’m sad for the children involved and their families, but I’m angry with whoever owns that gun and allowed a little child to get hold of it,” neighbor Debbie Coto told the Associated Press.
I’m angry too. But I’m also proactive, which is why I never fail to ask the question of any parent who invites one of my kids over. I got the idea from a gun-safety rally I covered years ago, long before I even had kids. The advice sounded sage, if a bit discomfiting. It never fails to elicit a moment of stunned silence, but I’ve long since made peace with the awkwardness of asking.
After all, when sending our kids over to someone else’s house, we make sure that the host parents have the appropriate car seats or boosters so that our children are safe on the road. If our kids have allergies, we let the host parents know. Recently, when my daughter invited a pal who has a peanut allergy to spend the night, her friend’s father dropped the girl off with a sleeping bag, a toothbrush and an EpiPen — just in case.
The likelihood that we’d accidentally feed the friend something with peanuts was slim, given our knowledge of her allergy. But her dad was doing due diligence. Shouldn’t we do the same when it comes to guns and kids?
For the record, the question I lob at parents of my kids’ friends is not a disqualifier. It shouldn’t cause the sort of controversy that bubbled up around a Missouri bill requiring parents to notify a child’s school that they own a firearm. It’s not meant to shame them or serve as a public name-check of the sort that transpired in December when The Journal News in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley published the names and addresses of pistol permit holders licensed by Westchester and Rockland counties.
It’s simply intended to get moms and dads thinking about how they store weapons in their home. We can preach to our own kids about gun safety and how to act around guns, but if their friends don’t have the same rules in place at their homes, all the preaching in the world won’t do any good.
Maybe it’s the company my kids keep — or maybe fellow parents aren’t being truthful — but I’ve had only one parent cop to having guns in her home. Even that mom — our daughters are in the same kindergarten class — seemed so taken aback by my question that she initially said no. Within a millisecond, once what I’d asked had sunk in, she quickly changed to “yes,” followed by an unprompted: “We keep them locked in a safe.”
That’s all I wanted to know before I sent my 5-year-old daughter over to create sticker art.