Gun Safety: Are You Too Afraid to Ask These Questions?

I’m not usually afraid to speak my mind.

For example, I have no problem schooling the world about my younger daughter’s life-threatening peanut allergy. When she was in kindergarten she went into full-blown anaphylactic shock — projectile vomiting, tightening throat, itchy hives — after eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. It was incredibly scary, and I know it can happen again.

Ever since then I’ve been vigilant with the diet I feed her, and with what she consumes when she’s out of my sight. I educate her teachers, her Brownie troop, and our neighbors. Before she goes on playdates I quiz both moms and nannies. I’ve talked with her about it so often she knows how to self-police. Now in second grade, she eats at the “peanut-free” table at school. She never swaps food with her peers from her lunch pack. Because exposure to peanuts can kill her. And she knows this.

While the food allergy issue has gone mainstream in recent years, I’ve still met mild resistance from some parents — and outright annoyance from others — when I ask them to bring peanut-free snacks to school. Perhaps most dangerous of all, I’ve run into moms and dads who are a bit cavalier. These are the folks who pull out, say, a gallon of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and assume that since it’s plain vanilla, it’s safe for my daughter to eat. Wrong. A great many frozen treats are processed with peanuts, and even a trace amount can be deadly for my daughter. The only way to know is to read the allergen information on the label. Which I always ask them to do.

It’s the cavalier parents who scare me the most. The ones who say they understand, but who don’t think it’s necessary to fully ensure my daughter’s safety when she’s in their presence.

So I’m vigilant about safety. I can be downright blunt about it, frankly.

But here comes my big confession: I’m not so great at voicing my concerns about every risk. Not even when it comes to a threat that is every bit as dangerous for my daughter as her food allergy — a threat that’s also dangerous for my older daughter and your kids, too. The words I want to ask are right there on the tip of my tongue: Are there any guns in your home? Are they all unloaded and safely stored? And yet it feels so hard to get those words out. 

Why? Because I’ve been too — what’s the right word? — skittish to say what I’m honestly thinking, and maybe offend someone. 

I’ve worried about gun safety so many times since the Sandy Hook shooting occurred in Newtown, CT, in December 2012. That’s when a disturbed young man with a semi-automatic rifle shot to death 20 6-year-olds and six adult staff members trying to protect them at school, leaving their families heartbroken and a nation reeling. That’s also when my awareness and activism on the issue of common sense gun laws greatly increased.

Yet I struggle to find the right words to express my concerns. Even me, who occasionally writes on this subject, and who supports groups like the Brady Campaign, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and Everytown for Gun Safety. You’d think I’d have worked out this dialogue, and how to have it in an easy and non-confrontational way. Me, who doesn’t shirk from safety discussions.

Because I have these thoughts every time either of my daughters makes a new friend in our still-new community. I consider the gun issue even when it comes to my long-standing acquaintances — the same ones I’ve never before asked who I worry could be offended if I begin scrutinizing them all these years later.

I know I’m not alone. I suspect there are plenty of moms and dads out there with kids and teenagers who have had these same concerns — and who still choke on them during drop-off at a playmate’s house; who want to say something but fear they’ll be perceived as alarmist, political, strident, or a buzz-kill to what is supposed to be a friendly good time.

The thing is, this is America. Every one of us is free to take whatever position we choose on the matter of guns (and everything else, actually). You want to own a gun? And keep it in your home? Okay. That’s your right. I have no interest in engaging in an ideological debate about guns when it comes to scheduling a playdate! I only want to know if my kid might be able to accidentally access your weapons while she’s at your house. I only want to be assured that you are a responsible gun owner.

That’s all.

And knowing what I’ve learned since the Sandy Hook shooting — that guns can be found in one in three U.S. households (and this includes both red and blue states); that gun violence is the second-leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens; that nine kids are shot in this country every single day; and that 80 percent of accidental deaths involving children occur not on the streets but in the home — I also know these are questions I need to stop cowering from.

Do you have guns in your home? Are they unloaded and safely stored?

Because, much like the peanut threat, it’s the cavalier parents who unnerve me the most. The ones who say they understand, but who don’t think it’s necessary to fully ensure my daughter’s safety — to unload, to securely lock, and to safely store their guns — when she’s in their presence, and away from mine.

The only way I’m going to know—and you’re going to know, as well—is if we ask. The Asking Saves Kids website is a great resource; it gives parents specific ideas for how to broach this potentially touchy subject. Also, it just so happens June 21—Father’s Day—is National ASK Day, with moms and dads coming together at ASK events all over the country.

At the end of the day, no matter where you stand on this issue, these are our kids. And no parent wants his or her child to accidentally shoot himself or another person. So, let’s stop being so afraid to ask the gun question.