By Michael Pearson
(CNN) — It was a bit awkward the first time Kate Daggett asked the question.
She didn’t want to offend her friends, after all, and it seemed rather personal. She stammered, she stalled. “I probably rambled for two or three minutes,” she said.
Finally, she got it out.
What do you do with the guns in your house? the mother of two asked the parents of her teenage son’s friends, both avid hunters.
It’s not a new question — about 19 million parents were asking it back in 2006, according to a survey conducted by the Center to Prevent Youth Violence.
But in the wake of December’s Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre — and recent accidental shootings involving children — it appears to be one that parents are asking more and more often before sending their kids on play dates and sleepovers.
“From our own experience, we have been getting a lot more calls post the Newtown shooting,” said Becca Knox, senior manager of public health and safety for the Center to Prevent Youth Violence. The group is behind the ASK campaign, which encourages parents to quiz parents in homes where their children play about the presence of guns.
The acronym stands for “Asking Saves Kids.”
Despite incidents such as the recent death of a 6-year-old New Jersey boy shot in the head by a 4-year-old playmate, as well as the accidental shooting of a Tennessee sheriff’s deputy’s wife by a 4-year-old boy, accidental firearms deaths are rare among children.
Injuries are rare
According to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 703 children under the age of 15 died in accidental firearms deaths between 2001 and 2010, the latest year for which the agency’s statistics on fatalities are available. During the same period, 7,766 children under the age of 14 suffered accidental firearms injuries — about one injury for every million children.
But statistics don’t matter much if it’s your child that’s shot, said Missy Carson Smith, founder of Gun Safe Mom, a campaign to make the gun question as common as asking about food allergies, swimming pools and video game limits.
“It just shreds your family,” said Smith, whose own teenage brother died in a shooting.
She started the campaign in 2009, after learning during a carpool trip that unsecured guns were in the home of a family where her daughter had played.
“The kids knew where they were, they could get to it,” she said. “That’s when my heart just dropped in my stomach.”
She resolved to ask the family about their guns, but first she had some housekeeping of her own to do: Her family had an unsecured gun, owned by her husband. After getting it out of the house, she reached out to the other family to ask about the weapons there.
“They didn’t realize that the way guns were stored in their home posed a threat to other people,” she said. “It was a good conversation.”
Since then, she has reached out to friends and leaders in her Traverse City, Michigan, community to press her cause and encourage parents to routinely ask the question. She’s had the conversation with friends of her children probably 50 times, she says.
It’s not about gun rights, she stresses. In fact, she counsels parents to make a point of saying they understand and accept the rights of gun owners to have firearms — even loaded, unlocked weapons.
“If it works for you, cool,” she said.
The point, she says, is to make sure you’re comfortable with the environment where you’re sending your kids.
Smith says she’s heard of some pushback among parents — including the mother of an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old who told an educator who subscribes to Smith’s campaign that her children already knew how to handle weapons. Another critic responded to a recent newspaper article saying he didn’t want a “soccer mom telling me what to do with my weapons.”
But the response has been generally positive, she says.
Gun owner’s reaction
Among other supporters, she points to Traverse City businessman Howard Shelby, who describes himself as a National Rifle Association member and gun rights supporter.
In December, the father of a family who planned to vacation with Shelby’s grown daughter and her family called to ask if there were any weapons in the Shelby family’s Florida vacation home.
“I was impressed,” Shelby said, noting that he’d told the man that he had a well-secured shotgun in the home. The vacation went on as planned, Shelby said.
He later attended a Gun Safe Mom event and supports Smith’s mission.
As for Daggett, she said her friends responded well to the gun question the first time she asked it. The avid hunters assured her that all of their weapons were locked up in a gun safe.
She’s gotten better at asking the question since. It’s part of her standard rundown now, anytime she ponders allowing her kids to visit another family’s home.
With a curious 4-year-old daughter she calls “the raccoon” and a 13-year-old son — the age of so many school shooters and victims — she feels like she doesn’t have much choice.
“I could so easily see my son or one of his friends picking up a pistol and saying, ‘This is so cool!’ ” Daggett said.
Starting the conversation
Here are some tips from Knox and Smith about having the gun conversation with other parents:
— Start by having a family policy on firearms safety that you’re already following, Smith said. “If you’re not thinking about it ahead of time, you don’t really know what you like or don’t like,” she said.
— Don’t make gun safety a bigger deal than, say, pool safety or food allergies, but do make sure to clearly cover it, Knox said. “Blend it in with other topics,” she suggests. “It’s important to not make this too heavy or a subject that shouldn’t be talked about.”
— Don’t make judgments. “It’s not just what you say and the content of your question, but the manner you express your question,” Smith said.
— Don’t worry about offending other parents, Knox says. She said the group’s field work shows gun owners are rarely offended by the question, but concern about opening up a rift between families keeps some parents from talking about the issue. “It’s a barrier of anticipation,” she says.
— Have the conversation when kids aren’t around, Smith suggests. She recounted the experience of a friend who brought up the issue when her son’s young friends were around. Their mother froze — she hadn’t told the children that a gun was in the home. It turns out the weapons were secured, Smith said. “But she didn’t want the kids to know they were there.” Whether you agree with that or not, respect the other family’s values, Smith said.
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