Health and Science News for Parents

Do you ask the question that might save your child’s life?

written by Tara Haelle

My oldest son recently turned 4 years old, and he’s gone to play several times at neighbors’ homes without my husband or I sticking around. He’s reaching that age when I might drop him off at a friend’s house for a few hours and then return to pick him up, trusting that during that time, he will be appropriately supervised by the friend’s parent. I’m not a naturally paranoid, suspicious or judgmental person, and I generally give others the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t get it as much from others.sample-4-unlocked

That said, I’m going to start asking one question of other parents that may eventually earn me some defensive, even angry, responses. But I’m going to ask it anyway: “Is there an unlocked gun anywhere in your home?”

I already expect to get some “It’s none of your business responses,” which I’ve seen mentioned on social media. But if that’s the response, my child won’t be playing at that home, and I will no longer trust that parent – because it IS my business whether an unlocked gun will be around in the environment where my child plays. It is EVERYONE’S business whether an unlocked gun is around, and it is EVERYONE’S responsibility to start asking this question, lest we continue to see tragic accidental, fatal shootings among children.

Today, June 21, is National ASK Day, sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatricians and the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. I know the Brady Center is controversial among those who feel strongly about Second Amendment rights. I have studiously avoided policy and political commentary and topics on this blog, and I will continue to do so. This post does not express any opinion toward the Brady Center one way or another. It is not a political post. It’s a common sense post, and it’s definitely evidence-based.tweet-1-out-3

The ASK campaign reports that NINE children and teens are estimated to be shot each day in gun accidents. That may seem high, but you can run the numbers yourself at the CDC. I just ran a search for unintentional firearm deaths among those aged 19 and younger on the CDC’s Fatal Injury data site and then non-fatal unintentional firearm injuries.

In 2011, there were 140 deaths and 2,886 injuries, just over 8 per day for that particular year – and those are likely underestimates. Not all injuries are reported, and deaths that are first misclassified as homicide before being reclassified as accidents are often not re-reported as such.(Firearm injury tracking is one of the poorest data collections we have in the US, for many reasons, but that’s a post for another day.)

Even if I hadn’t run that report, however, my involvement the past two years with Parents Against Gun Violence (PAGV) has meant that I see news story after news story after news story (after news story after news story) – many more than most see on their Facebook, Twitter or RSS feeds – about children all over the US shot and killed by other children, by folks cleaning their guns, by dropped guns, by various other forms of negligence. It’s depressing. Really, really depressing.80-unintentional

It’s so depressing that PAGV has struggled with finding the manpower to continue updating our specialized “Formerly Responsible Gun Owner” blog, where these and other incidents are recorded. (This blog does not document only incidents involving children, but all the incidents explicitly involve previously (or still) law-abiding citizens who would have been considered “responsible gun owners” until the incident that occurred.) We have all the stories collected, but posting them requires someone to read each one, to read the details of incredibly tragic, preventable deaths.

I am willing to piss off a few fellow parents to reduce the likelihood that my son will become one of those. And that’s why I will ask them about guns in their home.

This campaign is not about shaming gun owners or having a problem with a person who owns guns. In fact, our home is a gun-owning home, and I grew up in a gun-owning (and hunting) home, on a block full of neighbors who owned guns. It’s estimated that one in every three homes contains a gun, but it’s only the ones left loaded and unlocked that are the problem here. This campaign is about ensuring that anyone who does own a gun has that gun securely locked up, preferably unloaded, and completely inaccessible to children and visitors.

The AAP has policy statement regarding firearms, which accurately states that the *most* effective way to reduce firearm-related injuries and deaths is to remove guns from homes and communities. For many reasons, many families will choose to own a gun, and in that case, the AAP recommends that all guns are stored unloaded and locked, preferably in a gun safe, with ammunition locked away separately.

1in3This next part is important – REALLY important: hiding guns is not good enough. Kids find stuff. They find things you wouldn’t imagine possible. They find stuff you thought you’d lost years ago. If there is a gun hidden in the home, they’re highly likely to find it, and they’re not likely to leave it alone. I’ve heard many gun owners claim that their children have been appropriately educated and trained to respect guns and not to touch one if they find it. But research – and this hidden camera experiment that is REALLY worth watching – have shown that kids can’t resist picking up and playing with a gun, *even if* they’ve been educated otherwise. Surprisingly, gun awareness and education sessions may actually *increase* a child’s likelihood of handling a gun when they find one. This is even true of teenagers and college students.

So, this blog post is to encourage other parents to ask. I recognize that it can be awkward or unpleasant. This article on Today Parents discusses how to broach the conversation. I’ve also included several infographics and tips below from the ASK campaign’s outstanding toolkit. I’m adding one of their website graphics to my site permanently. They also offer statistics, website banners and other ways parents can get involved. I encourage readers to explore their excellent site. I may periodically post their other resources on this blog. Also take the time to read this outstanding New York Times article on child gun deaths. And please, ask.




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21 Responses to “Do you ask the question that might save your child’s life?”

  1. Dorit Reiss

    Thank you. It would not have occurred to me that this might be an issue until I read this.

  2. I grew up in a state where everyone, I mean everyone, owned a gun. Usually, a whole armory. I grew up around guns, and was taught how to use them, how to clean them and how to fire them safely. But even when I was in high school, my father had all guns locked up when he wasn’t home. And not some lame, any kid could open, lock, it was in a safe, with a combination only my father knew. But I went over to friend’s houses where parents weren’t as responsible. And we played with “unloaded” guns (one of the most laughable ideas on the planet).

    Reading this blog has shaken me to the core. Of course, I remember when I was 12 arguing with my dad that he didn’t trust me and my brother by keeping the guns unlocked. Well, glad he didn’t trust us.

    I would have no qualms no reservations about interrogating (yes, that’s what I’d do) any family that had temporary responsibility of my child. I’m almost certain that I’d go one step more–if they have a gun, my kid doesn’t go over. Period. I would trust my dad because he didn’t trust kids (OK, that had downsides, but at least not with guns) around guns.

    Thanks Tara. This will make us think of things.

  3. Shannon

    My father owns guns, but he keeps them locked in safes or they are secured to his person (he has a CCL). When he comes to visit he clears his gun (it’s kept in a locked bag up where my children can’t get to it), he’ll also showed me that the gun is clear. I don’t even have to ask. If I express any worry, it’s taken seriously.

    I hadn’t considered asking other parents though. My son is just getting old enough to start going to other people’s houses. I live in a rural area, so I’m sure mot people hunt and have guns. I’ll definitely need to ask.

  4. Chris

    For a while I could not say “no.”

    Just before my boys entered their teens my mother-in-law decided to give them the rifle and ammo left by her first husband (who died forty years ago). First, I had no idea it had been in her house, and second the boys really had no interest in the rifle. Though my younger one did have a small bow and arrow that he used (with close supervision, especially after I caught him shooting towards the neighbor’s yard instead of the “target range” under the porch).

    I gave the rifle and forty-plus year old ammo to the police. I called first and was told to park my car in front of the precinct. Then walk in and explain to the desk officer (who is behind glass) that was I turning in an old rifle, etc. That way there is warning of intent before getting out of the car with a weapon.

    The little bow and arrow my younger son had was recently dug out from basement storage. He was lending it to one of his roommates as part of a LARPing* costume. Even though they are in their 20s I warned them to be careful with the arrows.

    * LARP = Live Action Role Playing. I snagged a picture he put up online of him in a tunic draped in a faux bear fur cape threatening a fire hydrant with a wooden sword.

  5. Disclaimer: I am a media professional in the firearms industry. My job is to shoot guns, write about guns, and train other people to shoot guns.

    With that out of the way, one of the legitimately excellent gun safety programs for children is NRA’s Eddie Eagle program. This is a way of teaching kids what to do if they encounter a gun. It’s summed up with these easy to teach and easy to remember bullet points: If you see a gun:
    Don’t Touch.
    Leave the Area.
    Tell an Adult.

    You can get more information on Eddie Eagle here:

    • Chris

      I remember that when I was a kid. It is nice to learn it is still around, because due to the recent NRA activities I really thought it had been discontinued.

      Though I do have to ask one question: how well does that program work for three year olds?

      Or like the above author’s concern, a four year old?

      • Kimberly

        If e 3-4 year old can be taught not to touch matches and lighters, and to stop,drop,roll…..then they can learn this too

        • Tara Haelle

          And do you leave matches and lighters around for your 3-4-year-old to see if they follow through on what they’ve been taught? Have you ever seen a 3- or 4-year-old on fire to see if they remember to stop, drop and roll? Just because we’ve taught it to them does not mean they have learned it. And the evidence has shown that children, especially younger children but even older ones, do NOT learn from gun safety lessons, or at least, they do not apply those lessons. Frankly, I would rather not test the theory with my own child’s life.

          • Ian Argent

            Would you ASK if a house has unsecured lighters, matches, or accelerants, though? That’s the difference

          • Tara Haelle

            If there is reason to believe there might be unsecured items like this, it’s a reasonable question to ask. Why not ask it always anyway? First, these items cannot and do not kill as efficiently and easily — and as suddenly with just a single simple motion — as a firearm does. Second, research has shown kids to be attracted to a gun — they see it, and even if they’ve been told to do otherwise, they will often pick it up and sometimes play with it. There is a strong attraction and fascination there which is dangerous. There is no evidence to show that the same is true of lighters, matches or accelerants. I personally could see where a kid finding a lighter might want to pick it up and play with it as well. But turning on a lighter and pulling a trigger on a gun, while both dangerous, vary dramatically in scale and in terms of the potential damage that can result from each. The latter is far more likely to produce a tragedy than the former, which requires the child to intentionally try to light something on fire.

  6. Why would you think that NRA had discontinued Eddie?

    As to the age limits of children, I suppose that would depend on how smart the kid is. Not having kids, I don’t really have an opinion beyond that. But I suppose if my kids were playing at a friend’s house, I’d make sure that the parents didn’t have anything randomly dangerous laying about, not just guns.

    • Chris

      “Why would you think that NRA had discontinued Eddie?”

      Mostly by noticing the emphasis of their lobbying changing from when I was a kid. It went from more “gun safety” to “gun rights” in the 1980s or so. They used to even advertise the classes on TV when I was in junior high, and I’ve not seen one of those in decades.

      “Not having kids, I don’t really have an opinion beyond that.”

      Fortunately the normal neurological development of children is not a matter of “opinion”, but based on years and years of research. If one were to suggest an educational program it should be age appropriate, like for the four year old mentioned in the first sentence of the article.

      “I’d make sure that the parents didn’t have anything randomly dangerous laying about, not just guns.”

      Certainly, things like an unfenced pond or unsecured prescription drugs. Many of them need to be supervised. My oldest had a medical condition that required protection from certain diseases by community immunity, so I did ask if the kids he was in contact with were vaccinated. Because some things you just can’t see.

  7. Carina

    After an accidental shooting in our community where a child died, this task, to ask friends about guns became very real to me – I assumed that in a well to do community everyone who had guns, would keep them locked up. The two children were playing in a garage and found a gun that had been put “safely” away, and the owner stated repeatedly he had emptied it. Although I do still ask, I admit that I find it very difficult to ask other parents, as it seems to bring politics into a relationship where it didn’t necessarily belong. Those we are close to, were very open about their views on different weapons, how and where their guns were secured (if applicable), what sort of discussions they had with their kids, etc. Some families I am not as close with, the conversation is much more uncomfortable. And, although I’ll keep asking new parents, I’m not sure I’m getting anything more than an awkward moment – no one will admit that they “hide” their gun, or that it is left loaded for burglars. Every single parent who has answered that yes, there is a gun in the house, has stated that it is kept unloaded, separate from ammunition, locked. More important than even asking the parents (who can be wrong about the actual state of their weapon like most other gun owners after an accident) I have periodic conversations with my kids (9, 5, 3) to make sure they know what to do if they find/see/etc. a gun somewhere out of context (in our larger family there are guns)- their first job is to Get Away Fast. We clearly state that they don’t even need to tell another kid (who theoretically would be there) to put it away, or that they’re not allowed to play with guns, etc. Their primary duty is to get away from the gun. Their secondary duty is to tell an adult and still stay away. Accidents are just that – no one intends them to happen so best to avoid the situation.

  8. Alexandra

    I live in Toronto, Canada. If we asked this question to our children’s friends’ parents, I think we would be looked at as if we were crazy. I don’t know a single person who owns a gun, except for one friend who is a policeman. And he keeps his gun at work.

  9. […] is the question Tara Haelle, the American Academy of Pediatricians, and the Brady Center for the Preve… want you to ask when your child goes to play at someone else’s […]

  10. Ian Argent

    I highly recommend the articles under Kids and Guns at this site – – who DOES recommend that you either secure firearms on your person or in a locked container; but ALSO recommends demystifying them.
    As for my own views on the topic (as a firearms owner and parent), how many of you would think to ask if the kitchen knives are secured? Buckets? Household cleaner? Do you worry about your children going to a house with a pool?

    • Tara Haelle

      Thanks for the link to gun safety! Yes, demystifying them is great — if you can do it. Research shows us that that doesn’t happen. It’s human nature and psychology, and multiple studies have shown this (including ones linked to in the post). Re: buckets and household cleaner: how many children who are playing and stumble onto household cleaner play with it and can do a single flick of the finger and die from it? Or, if they dropped the cleaner, could it kill them just by hitting the ground? Would they point the cleaner at a friend “for fun” and if so, would that present any danger to the friend? You could come up with a scenario in which all the answers are yes, but it would be a heck of a stretch, and there’s not evidence to show that this is happening. Re kitchen knives, children have been conditioned to think of kitchen knives as tools to use for cutting up food. Yes, they could present a danger if kids played with them, but even if a kid accidentally or intentionally stabbed another, the victim is very likely to live. The same is not true if a gun is involved. Further, a gun cannot be used for anything other than killing — that is its entire purpose, unlike a knife, which has many uses. Therefore, we cannot condition children to think of a gun for being used for anything other than what it’s used for — to kill. (Even those who enjoy sport and target shooting are essentially practicing for when the gun could or might be used to kill.) For these reasons, and what I already said regarding the fact that kids are unlikely to play with these things – and even if they do, the possible dangers that can result are far less likely to be deadly and immediate – none of these other unsecured objects present the same dangers as unsecured guns.

      Regarding a pool? Absolutely parents should be asking if the door or gate to the pool is locked or if it’s covered. That’s a reasonable question that should also always be asked.

      • Ian Argent

        Household chemicals present a poisoning danger in quite small amounts; so I’d say they’re at least as dangerous to a curious child as a firearm. Buckets are even more dangerous to toddlers than a firearm, as they can tip into them and DROWN, quietly. There’s a reason all the buckets you buy these days have graphic warnings on them about this.
        Stab wounds are, contrary to popular belief, much more deadly than bullet wounds, and a kitchen knife cannot be rendered inert. And you have a logical inconsistency – if a child can be conditioned to regard a kitchen knife as a tool (instead, of, say, a sword sized for them) then they can be conditioned to follow the rules of firearms safety. I was taught both the rules of knife safety and firearms safety at about the same time and in the same manner (Boy Scouts) and they’re at the same level of simplicity and effectively the same rules. In fact, the rules of firearms safety apply to any dangerous tool.
        Unless they are (almost literally) museum pieces or are in mechanical disrepair, a firearm will NOT go off when dropped; it’s a myth. IF it is in such a state, then it’s unsafe to leave loaded at all. Since the 1960’s firearms have been REQUIRED to be drop-safe by federal law.

        Here’s the deal, I STRONGLY believe that firearms should be secured, and that owners of dangerous tools and chemicals (NOT just firearms) should be held liable for misuse of same by minors. But I don’t believe that firearms owners should be demonizing all firearms owners for the sins of a handful, and ignoring other items that are as or more dangerous than a firearm.

        • Tara Haelle

          Do you have evidence that playmates are dying from household chemicals or bucket drownings at the same rates as firearms? The point is that firearm accidents resulting in death or serious injury are not rare, but they are preventable. There is no reason to quibble with asking to ensure they are locked up. Discussing other dangers is fine, but using them as a distraction to claim that it’s unfair to ask about guns is intellectually dishonest.

          “Stab wounds are, contrary to popular belief, much more deadly than bullet wounds” Do you have evidence for this? A knife stabbing happened in China the same day as Newtown with a similar number of victims; there were no deaths. A gun is designed for the purpose of killing, and it does that job remarkably well. No other object in a household is manufactured explicitly for the sole purpose of killing except a gun, and no other object found in a household is as efficient at doing so.

          “if a child can be conditioned to regard a kitchen knife as a tool (instead, of, say, a sword sized for them) then they can be conditioned to follow the rules of firearms safety” You would think — except that research proves this wrong. This blog is an evidence-based blog, and I follow what the evidence shows us, not what gut instinct or common sense might appear to imply.

          “a firearm will NOT go off when dropped; it’s a myth” No, it’s not. I grew up around guns, and we own guns — I’m not anti-gun, but I also recognize the risks they present, and I’m clear-eyed about those risks. Asking parents to ask their children’s playmates’ parents if guns are locked up is not demonizing gun owners. If I wanted to demonize gun owners, I would have to be looking in a mirror to do it. I am interested in changing the culture around the way we think about guns and helping people recognize the dangers and risks presented by gun ownership. Accidental firearm deaths and injuries are underreported; hence people may be unaware of what a serious risk exists. Here are a few more links, in addition to the ones in the post.

          • Ian Argent

            CDC WISQARS – 2011 United States, Unintentional Injuries Ages 1-18 All races, both sexes

            Cause of Death Deaths Percent
            MV Traffic 3064 51.81802807
            Drowning 852 14.40892948
            Poisoning 501 8.472856418
            Fire/burn 286 4.836800271
            Suffocation 263 4.447826822
            Pedestrian, Other 148 2.502959581
            Other Land Transport 137 2.316928801
            Firearm 118 1.995602909
            Natural/ Environment 113 1.911043464
            Fall 101 1.708100795
            Struck by or Against 82 1.386774903
            Other Transport 79 1.336039236
            Other Spec., classifiable 54 0.913242009
            Unspecified 38 0.642651784
            Pedal cyclist, Other 25 0.422797226
            Machinery 22 0.372061559
            Other Spec., NEC 20 0.338237781
            Cut/pierce 9 0.152207002
            Overexertion 1 0.016911889

            You have to be cautious about using the canned searches because the age group for “teenagers” runs from 15-24. Note that BOTH poisoning and fire/burn (And suffocation – plastic bags?) outrank firearms. I’ll admit I don’t have any way to tease the bucket drownings out of the #2 cause of unintentional deaths…
            Source for knife wounds being as deadly or more so than firearms wounds is a study referenced in one of Gary Kleck’s books.

          • Tara Haelle

            I did not use a canned search. I ran the search myself, personally. If you read my post and clicked on the links, that should be evident. It’s also well established that accidental firearm injuries are severely underestimated. You clearly did not click on the previous links provided. And even if they were not, you are engaging in the classic logical fallacy of relative privation. Gun deaths are preventable. It is reasonable to try to prevent them.

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