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Playdates & Guns

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On the way home from school today, I asked my kids, 10 and 8, if they had ever seen a gun at a friend’s house. Their answers were eye-opening. While I was relieved but not surprised to hear that neither had seen a gun at a friend’s house, they were both able to list the exact location of the guns they’d seen at home and at their grandparents’ house.

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We are a gun-free home, but my husband keeps his unloaded, non-functioning childhood BB gun on a high shelf in the back of our basement. That they even knew that BB gun was there (we don’t use our basement for anything but storage) is proof enough for me: If you have a gun, your kids know where it is.

I am a frequent hostess of playdates, parties and sleepovers. I have a high tolerance for mess and noise and making kids happy, so it’s not unusual for our Friday nights to include two (or three or four) extra kids.

I’ve been opening my home to my kids’ friends for about seven years, and in all that time exactly one parent out of dozens has asked me if we have a gun in the home. And, bless her heart, she did so with such great discomfort that it was painful for both of us.

Asking another parent whether or not the family owns a gun does not seem to be an easy conversation to have, though I’m not exactly sure why. People ask me all the time about my two labrador retrievers. Are they friendly? Do they jump? Would I be willing to lock them up because their daughter is scared of dogs? (Yes, yes and yes.) They ask me about the rules I have for our trampoline, where their kids will sleep and if we have an extra booster seat in our car. If I am taking the kids swimming, they ask about pool safety. But no one ever asks about guns. (And let me add, I live in Michigan, where gun ownership nears 40 percent.)

Some gun owners felt afraid to be upfront about their gun-owning status because they felt it might have a negative impact on their child’s social standing.

A recent report by Mother Jones found that since this time last year, 194 children under the age of 12 have been killed by guns in the U.S. Eighty-four of those children were killed by accident. In 52 of those deaths, the gun had been left unsecured. And out of those 52 deaths, only four adults were held accountable for not securing their weapons. A recent study by two Boston surgeons found that the number of children killed by guns each year may be closer to 500. These statistics certainly warrant a conversation with our kids about what to do if they find an unlocked gun, but why aren’t parents talking about it with other parents?

I recently brought this topic up in an online parenting community, and the responses were interesting. Some gun owners felt afraid to be upfront about their gun-owning status because they felt it might have a negative impact on their child’s social standing. Most gun owners said they were more than happy to answer the question, “How do you store your weapons?” But when asked, “Do you have a gun?” some felt judged. It’s no secret that the right to gun ownership is a heated and emotional issue that often divides our country, and being asked that particular question feels akin to being asked who you voted for in the last election. It’s political. But by asking a parent how she stores her weapon, you are acknowledging that the debate itself won’t stand between your kids being friends, you just want to make sure things are locked up tight.

Of course, not everyone feels that way. At least one parent told me that her kids aren’t allowed to play in a house where parents kept a gun, locked up or not.

Many parents suggested slipping the gun topic into the typical back-and-forth that happens before a play date. “Johnny has an allergy to cats so I packed his inhaler. He doesn’t have any food sensitivities to worry about. We’ll pick him up at 10 tomorrow. By the way, if you have guns are they locked up?” Not exactly natural, but gets the job done. Others said that they volunteer information before it can be asked. “We have two dogs, a swimming pool, and are a gun-free home.” By announcing your own status, other parents may feel more comfortable volunteering information.

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If you’d like to discuss guns with other parents, but aren’t sure how to break the ice, there are two online groups that might be able to help. ASK is a collaboration of the Center to Prevent Youth Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics. They recommend one simple question: “Is there a gun where your child plays?” Gun Safe Moms promises to help you “unlock the conversation” and promotes open communication among parents.

What about you—do you ask about guns before a playdate? How do you handle it?

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