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Guns, Parenting and Risk: Do You Let Your Child Visit Homes With Firearms?

I read an essay in Salon this week by a mother who says  that before she lets her 11 year old son play at another kid’s house for the first time, she asks whether the family keeps guns in the house.  So far, she hasn’t had to decide what to do if the answer were to be yes because quite remarkably (to me, anyway), no parent has ever answered her question affirmatively.

Obviously, accidental shootings by children – ‘tween and adolescent boys being the most curious about guns – are a real concern. We should not minimize or trivialize the safety issues raised when guns are not properly secured and supervised in a house with kids.  However,  as a parent who has lost a child to a common household danger – overdose of prescription drugs – I find myself wondering where asking questions about risk in other families’ homes should stop.

Would you let your younger child attend a playdate at a home with a swimming pool, pond or a hot tub, where he might drown? Do you ask parents if they have liquor or prescription medications in their house before you allow your middle schooler to spend the night there? Do you ask for a criminal background check before letting your nine year old daughter spend the weekend with a friend’s family in which a stepfather has recently joined the household, just to be sure you aren’t sending your child into danger from a sex offender? What about seatbelts and car safety? Do you ask whether the parents of a new friend will promise to always make sure your child is wearing his seatbelt properly when he rides in a car with them?

I definitely think that it’s important to assess the general level of safety and supervision in a home before allowing one’s child to hang out there. The parents should seem sensible, involved and willing to engage with you.  I think parents should trust their own gut, too. If a home or family or set of parents make you uneasy for some reason, don’t send your kid to play there.  But I have to say that I’m with John Cave Osborne in that I find the idea of asking parents you’ve just met whether they keep guns in the house as an apparent single-issue litmus test to be intrusive and misguided. Additionally, since our family lives in an area of the country with a high gun ownership rate (we don’t have any guns ourselves, for the record), if I banned my kids from any house in which guns are kept, they would have very few social opportunities. That’s not an exaggeration.  In fact, one of my 7th grade son’s very best friends’ family business is an ammunition factory.

My own default expectation is that there ARE guns in the homes my kids visit, which is why gun safety education is important for all children and teenagers, and why it’s also important to have a sense that the other parents with whom you entrust your child for a playdate or sleepover are responsible, smart and safety-conscious in a global sense, which should translate into locking up their guns in a secure location.

Guns are dangerous and even lethal in the hands of children, and also in the hands of stupid, careless parents. No one can argue with that. But unfortunately, and sadly, as I know all too well, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to risks to our children found inside the homes of their friends. Parents have to do what feels right to them, and if asking this “do you have guns?” question of other parents is important to the author of that Salon essay, then so be it. But I think, perhaps, that getting the “right” answer to her highly specific query may be giving her a false sense of safety and security for her child.

How about you? What questions do you ask before allowing your children to visit other kids’ homes? Would a home with guns be off-limits? Do you keep guns at home, and if so, have you ever had another parent ask you about it? Tell me your views on this issue in the comments below.

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