Talking About Guns: The Loaded Question Parents Need to Ask

The answer, gun safety advocates say, can be life changing.

In a time when parents are willing to talk about everything from breastfeeding to preteen "sexting," one simple question often remains off limits: Do you have a loaded, unlocked gun in your house?

The answer, gun safety advocates say, can be life changing. Newsfeeds are filled with story after tragic story about children who find loaded guns in a home, pull the trigger and accidentally kill someone.

"I think that’s as relevant a question as, ‘Do you keep your liquor locked up?’ or ‘Do you keep your prescription medicine out of reach of children?’" says Dan Starks, personal safety expert and owner of Starks Training Institute in Charlotte. "I think it’s just common courtesy and common sense."

According to Asking Saves Kids (ASK), a national campaign promoting conversations about guns in homes with children and other parents, one out of three American homes with children has a gun, and nearly 1.7 million children in the U.S. live in homes with an unlocked, loaded gun.

In North Carolina, 4 out of 10 homes have a gun, and it is estimated that more than 82,000 children in the state live with unlocked and loaded guns.

Research presented to the American Academy of Pediatrics in late 2013 found that the prevalence of household gun ownership was linked to child gunshot wounds. Results showed that about 7,500 children are admitted to hospitals each year with gunshot wounds, and about 500 of those die from those injuries.

"Handguns account for the majority of childhood gunshot wounds and this number appears to be increasing over the last decade," says Arin L. Madenci, lead study author. He adds that states with a higher percentage of household firearm ownership tended to have a higher proportion of children who received gunshot wounds, especially in a home.

Lifesaving Education

Accidental shootings often happen when children find a loaded, unlocked gun in a home and play with it. For example, in February, Tmorej Smith, 3, found a pink handgun in a bedroom at his home in Greenville, S.C. He thought it was a toy and while playing with it shot himself in the head and died.

Gun safety advocates say that children should be taught early about guns. Kids are curious about guns, and parents should not keep them off limits, says Stark. Though firearms and ammunition should always be locked in a gun safe, children who have accidentally shot others have found guns under couches, in drawers and inside closets.

"I think the biggest mistake parents make is they buy guns and try to hide them from their children," he says. "My suggestion is they should have a family meeting and introduce the firearms to the kids and let them know there are firearms in the house."

Josh Mitten of Fort Mill, and former Army personnel, owns three guns and already has talked with his children, ages 3, 6 and 8, about gun safety. He tries to take the mystery out of guns and likens them to tools that can be extremely dangerous.

"If you’re going to choose to have firearms as part of your family’s life, I think it’s important that everyone in the home has some level of understanding of why it’s appropriate, to their age level," he says.

He and his wife Melissa teach their children not to point any gun, including toy or pretend guns, at people and pull the trigger. Instead, their children draw pictures of animals, tape them around the house and go on safari hunts.

Since 1988, the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe program has taught more than 26 million children what to do if they find a gun. The program primarily is presented in schools, but its basic premise is that children should stop, don’t touch the gun, leave the area and tell an adult. The program does not promote firearm use or ownership among children.

Starting the Conversation

While parents who own guns can control how they are stored, they usually have no idea whether other families own firearms, and if they do, how they store them.

Gun ownership can be a touchy topic, so much so that many parents feel too awkward to ask people they are just getting to know whether they have unlocked guns in the house. Some don’t even think to ask the question or worry that if they do, it will cause a confrontation.

Experts suggest approaching the topic in a friendly way, preferably when the kids aren’t around. The question can be included in a larger discussion about safety rather than about whether people should own guns.

Stark said he would encourage parents, especially primary caretakers, to bring it up in casual settings. Ask how the family protects itself from intruders. If they have guns, ask how they are stored.

Research shows that 93 percent of parents, including those who own guns, would not be offended by the question, says Jennie Lintz, public health and safety director for ASK.

"Parents understand this is a safety conversation, just like you would ask about a fence around a pool or let a parent know if your child had a food allergy," says Lintz. Since ASK began educating parents about the importance of talking about guns with each other, more than 19 million parents have asked the "life-saving question." "(Asking) is one tangible thing every parent can and should do to protect his or her children," she says.

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer who lives in Charlotte.

Gun Safety in the Home

  • While gun safety education can benefit children, the best way to ensure that children do not handle guns is to properly store firearms and ammunition.
  • Keep all guns locked in a gun safe. For loaded firearms kept on hand for personal protection, small gun safes that fit in nightstands can be purchased for less than $150 and quickly accessed with a digital keypad.
  • Only adults who use the firearms should know where they are stored and how to access them.
  • Any gun not stored in a safe should never be loaded when it is not in use. Ammunition and guns should always be stored in separate places.
  • If you carry a handgun throughout the day, make it a habit to immediately put the gun in a safe when you arrive home.