It was the most awkward and divisive of questions that I would ask of other parents, usually new acquaintances, but also of old friends. We’d be on the phone, discussing our young children, laughing, and the subject of play dates would come up. The other mom might say, “Can Chloe come over here tomorrow to play with Maddie?” I would ask, “Do you keep guns in your house?”
Always it would lead to the most illuminating of answers, whether yes or no. If the response was negative, the parent would answer immediately, following up with something like, “No, never. We don’t believe in having firearms.” In the other cases, there would always be a pause preceded a simple, “”Yes.” I would follow up, “Do you have a gun safe?” Usually, then came the “No.”
I’m not quite sure what compelled me to ask about guns when my children were small. I just added it to the litany of things I would tell parents – we have a dog, we have a pool that’s fenced, we don’t keep guns. It seemed that if a parent told me about their child’s food allergy, I could and should ask if they kept guns.
Experts say that 1 in 3 families with children have at least one gun in the house, but somehow, I never thought those statistics would include the parents at my child’s progressive pre-school. Though it is known that nearly 1,500 children will die from shootings each year, no one knows how many of those are children dying in their homes, or in the homes of friends, playing with a firearm. No records are kept on that by any government bureau; the numbers are just mixed in with gang killings, suicides, and school shootings.
But you’ve read the stories – a 6-year-old boy picks up a gun and shoots his 4-year-old sister, two kids are playing in a bedroom and one accidentally kills the other, the toddler who finds the hidden holster in his mother’s purse and shoots her in the head. Authorities say that parents don’t believe that their children know where their guns are hidden, but a recent study says that eight in 10 first graders know where their parents hide their guns. Parents don’t believe their children are capable of firing a weapon, but firing mechanisms are such that children as young as 3 are strong enough to pull the triggers of most guns.
One friend, Melanie, who lived around the corner, confessed that her husband kept a gun. Her son Jack and my daughter, Chloe, were about 4 at the time and had been playing in each others’ yards for at least two years. I don’t know why it had suddenly occurred to me to ask her. Perhaps, I was just getting in the habit of asking everyone.
But Melanie told me more. Her husband had originally kept the gun, a 9mm, in his bedside table. Until the day Melanie had walked into the bedroom, and discovered 2-and-a-half-year-old Jack with the gun in his lap. Stronger precautions were taken after that; her husband moved the gun to a box on a high shelf in their walk-in closet. At 3, Jack found the gun again. Luckily, Melanie came in time, again. I looked into the eyes of this woman who had befriended me at a time when I didn’t have many “mother friends,” and said, “I can’t let Chloe come over ever again.”
She looked startled, but perhaps no more than I was at her stories. Melanie was a thoughtful, caring mother; Jack was her only child. The thought that that they were not only gun-owners, but so very lax about the dangers shocked me. She called me a week later, “Please come over. Steve’s moved the gun into the garage attic. Jack can’t get to it.” We did go, but something was broken in the relationship after that. I knew that it would be only a matter of time before Jack would find the gun again, it was too ingrained in him, as it is in all of us, that desire for the forbidden.
That question I would ask over and over, “do you keep guns?” ended some friendships before they ever began. A couple of old friends were motivated to buy gun safes. It was as if the possibility of something bad happening had never occurred to them before the question was asked. Parents believe that because they have told their child not to touch a gun, that they won’t. But studies say that simply isn’t true.
Once, when Chloe was in second grade, a mother called me apologizing before I could even get out hello. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “Alex would never harm Chloe, I just want you to know.” I had no idea what she was talking about. But it turned out that her son, Alex, had been teasing another girl in the class, and Chloe had told him to stop. “I’m going to shoot you dead,” 8-year-old Alex had said. “I know where my grandfather keeps his gun, I’m going to bring his gun to school tomorrow and kill you.” Chloe had come home and never mentioned it to me, but she had ratted Alex out to her teacher, who had mentioned it to the mom. The school never called me.
I wasn’t raised among gun people, and I’ve never wanted one. Frankly, I have a bad Irish temper and don’t trust myself to have one. And I was taught it was more powerful to use your words or your mind.
There’s no big ending to this story. Just that still, every day, I open the paper and read the words. Another child. Another gun. Another death.
Dede Donahue lives in Southern California. A former film marketing professional, she is now a freelance writer, memoirist and college essay consultant.
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