Before Arranging Playdates, Ask About Guns

40 percent of homes with children have a gun; learn how to keep your kids safe.

April 9, 2009, 1:29 PM

April 10, 2009 -- Stephen and Robbie are typical 11-year-olds who became fast friends after meeting at their local Boys and Girls club in Amelia, Ohio. They discovered a similar love of video games and shooting hoops, so it wasn't a surprise when they asked to start visiting one another's homes for playdates.

But after months of visits, it did come as a surprise to Stephen's mom, Carol, that Robbie's dad, Jan, kept handguns in his home for protection. The families asked that their last names not be used to protect their privacy.

"Stephen's been going to Jan's house to play with Robbie, and I had no idea Jan even had guns," Carol admitted. "It just never came up as a conversation."


Daniel Gross, the CEO and co-founder of PAX, the nation's largest nonpartisan gun violence prevention organization, said that 40 percent of homes with children have a gun.

"Nearly 1.7 million children live in homes with firearms that are loaded and unlocked, and every day eight children die from guns," he said. "These statistics are unacceptable. Parents can help make their children safer. All they have to do is ask. Parents ask all sorts of questions to protect their children when they go play at the home of a friend, neighbor or relative. But there is one important question that more than half of parents say it never even occurred to them to ask: Is there a gun where my child plays?"

PAX, along with the National Association of Pediatrics, wants parents to start a dialogue about guns in the home, because no matter how much you trust your children -- statistics show they are going to snoop.

ABC News recently invited 10 sets of parents and children in Amelia, Ohio, to speak openly about gun safety with Eckerd College psychologist Marjorie Hardy.

Hardy's research has revealed that what children tell their parents and what is true is often in contradiction.

"I think the majority of parents believe that their children would act maturely in the presence of a gun and the majority of those children would not," she said. "In one recent study 65 percent of the parents believe their children to have little or no interest in guns. And then when those children had the opportunity to touch a .38 caliber semiautomatic handgun, 35 percent did."

Kids and Guns: Better Safe Than Shy

Hardy said locking away guns should be part of the basic child-proofing of a home.

"We put gates around swimming pools, we put childproof caps on poisons. We need to lock away guns," she said. "I think it needs to be framed as a public health issue, because otherwise, the whole issue of guns and kids becomes wrapped up in the Second Amendment. It's not about an individual's right to own guns, it's about a child's right to live in an environment that's safe."

And that is the framework for PAX's Asking Saves Kids campaign.

"We're not getting involved in a public debate about gun ownership," Gross said. "We know everyone wants to keep children safe, so we have helped come up with some simple guidelines to ask the questions. We try to take any hint of judgment out of the question, and the results become a lot more powerful."

According to PAX, more homes in America with children have a gun (40 percent) than have a dog (36 percent), so the results of a parent's inquiries may be enlightening. And don't be too frightened to broach the subject, because a recent Benson Strategy Group survey found that 97 percent of parents who own a gun would not feel uncomfortable if asked about the gun in their home by another parent.

If the parent has a gun for recreation or protection there are follow-up questions that you can ask to make sure the gun is kept securely locked away.

Avoiding School Violence: Speak Up

If a neighbor or friend's family has a gun, you must determine if your child's safety is at risk. Guns should be kept in a gun safe, with the ammunition locked separately or they pose a real risk to your child. Hiding guns is not enough. There are countless tragic stories of kids finding guns that parents thought were well hidden or safely stored. If you have any doubts about the safety of someone's home, you should politely invite the children to play at your house instead.

"I think there are two simple solutions to avoiding unintentional gun injuries and death," said Hardy. "One is, if you're a gun owner, you need to lock up your gun. And the other responsibility that you have as a parent is to make sure that the places that your child goes, are safe as well. So you need to have a conversation with parents about guns."

If parents can learn to ask if there are firearms where their children will be playing, Gross and PAX hope that the children will "Speak Up" -- the name of their campaign -- and report any threats of weapon use in schools.

"The Department of Education and Secret Service tell us that in 81 percent of school shootings, four out of five times, there were kids that knew of the plan of gun violence," Gross said. "That's why we set up a toll-free anonymous hotline for students to call no matter what their weapons related fears are."

The goal of the Speak Up hotline is to encourage kids to do the right thing to protect themselves and to counter the prevalent "don't snitch" message.

"[Students] wanted complete anonymity, and they wanted somewhere to report suspicions without going directly to a teacher or even their local police," Gross said. "Students call 866-SPEAK-UP, they tell us their concerns and then we contact the schools and authorities with a protocol we worked out with the FBI. They are given an anonymous code if they want to call us back and find out what happened."

So far, the call centers staffed by trained professionals every minute of every day have received 30,000 calls, confiscated thousands of weapons and stopped possible tragedies.

Gross wants students to know no threat of violence is too small. "I would rather they call. Don't assume they are joking. Don't assume you will get in trouble. A risk to your safety is never a joke. Stand up for your safety. This 866-SPEAK-UP hotline is literally saving lives."

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