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Talking to Fathers About Their Guns

With my daughter nearing sleepover age, I didn't know how to approach other dads about their guns and how safe they are. So I asked.

Once upon a time, there was a kindergartner. One day, this kindergartner — a boy — was playing upstairs at a friend’s house. At some point, he turned around and discovered something unexpected: a revolver, pointed right at him by his friend, who was about the same age. This story has a happy ending because, just moments later, the friend’s mother entered the room and averted the potential crisis.

“I have no idea whether the gun was loaded,” says the kindergartner from the story, now a grown man with three children of his own. “But that’s the risk you have with having firearms around and not in a secure location.”

Today, that former kindergartener keeps firearms in his home, as do roughly one in three American homes with kids. It will not shock you to learn that having a gun in your house increases your kids’ likelihood of being shot in an accident — people who die from unintentional shooting are roughly three times more likely to have a gun in the home than those who are not. And among children, an overwhelming 89 percent of unintentional shootings occur in the home.

These numbers come from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Violence Prevention Initiative, and are supported by a recent study published in Pediatrics, which reports that 1,216 American kids receive emergency room treatment for unintentional gunshots every year. The Associated Press and USA Today recently reported that 141 kids died from accidental gunshots in 2015 — a figure 83 percent higher than what the Centers for Disease Control reported. (By law, the CDC is forbidden from funding research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control,” so the fact that the agency was looking into this issue at all is a small miracle.)

So the question becomes: How do you keep your kid from being another statistic? Even if —maybe especially if — you don’t own a gun yourself?

***

I do not own a gun. I have never shot a gun. As far as I can remember, I’ve only even seen a gun in person once in my life, when I accidentally discovered one at a relative’s house.

That said, I’ve spent half my life in states where guns were part of the culture. I grew up in Nebraska, where boys learn to hunt before they can drive. And I now live in Texas, which is Texas. (Actually, gun ownership in Texas is just barely above the nationwide average, but the state’s affection for firearms, and for the Second Amendment, is well documented.) So while I might not personally feel comfortable around guns, I know plenty of people who have them, shoot them, love them.

I also have a 3-year-old daughter on the cusp of being able to go on sleepovers, which means she’s at the age where the aforementioned Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania recommends I start talking with other parents about guns. And while my obvious preference would be that she’s never in a house with a gun, this just isn’t realistic.

The only problem is: I have no idea how to have this conversation.

And I suspect that I’m not the only one. To try and figure it out, I started asking around, seeking out dads who were comfortable talking with me about their firearms. (First lesson: Refer to them as firearms, not guns.) The following is what I learned about what to say, what not to say, and the conversation I really needed to have.

To a man, every dad I spoke with agreed that there’s no real way to prevent a gun accident from happening, for the same reason you can’t prevent any kind of accident from happening: It’s fundamentally beyond your control. Each dad also pointed out that while guns are a hot-button issue, they’re far from the only possible hazard your kid might encounter. A hot stove might pose a risk, as might more disturbing dangers like drugs, alcohol, and the potential for abuse. As uncomfortable as it might be, you need to talk with your fellow dads about all of these things before your kid stays at their house.

The good news is, each dad I spoke with was polite, engaging and non-confrontational. Still, it’s a sensitive topic, so I’d advise sticking to the following do’s and don’ts before you address it.

Do: Have the Conversation.

Brass tacks, you need to bring it up. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask,” says Mike, a gun-owning father from Colorado. “But I think it’s how you ask.” One way is to position it as part of a range of questions, (Do you have pets? Do you smoke?) That way, it’s not so different than how you might ask a potential sleepover guest about, say, food allergies. Avoid prying. Avoid confrontation. Whatever your political feelings on the matter, this isn’t the time to bring them up.

Do: Consider Blaming Your Wife. Or Your Kid.

I know, I know: It might not be the most progressive thing in the world, but if it makes it easier to ask a potentially life-saving question, just say your wife put you up to it. “No parent has ever asked me,” notes Chris from Kansas. “But I would expect nine times out of 10 it’d come from a woman because dads think ‘It’s none of my business.’”

Alternately, the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania suggests blaming it on Junior. (Their proposed ice-breaker: “I have to be extra careful because my son/daughter gets into everything!”) Hey, if it works, it works.

Don’t: Ask a Dad About His Arsenal — How Many Guns He Has, What Kind…That Sort of Thing.

“That would be a question that I would not consider necessarily in the best direction,” Mike from Colorado says politely. “For most gun owners, the discussion of exactly how many you have, and what models, is very private information. If I was having the conversation, I would only want to know if they had guns. And then I would assume they have more than one.“ Which makes sense: In practical terms, the gap between zero guns and one gun is greater than the gap between one gun and 100 guns.

Do: Ask How the Guns Are Secured

This is what you really need to know. Ideally, the guns are in a safe. Ideally, that safe is locked with either a code only the parents know or a key that only the parents can find. Neither of these guarantees safety, of course, but combined, they go a long way toward protecting your child.

Don’t: Make an Assumption Based on the Other Dad’s Experience.

Unlike most of the dads with whom I spoke, Mike didn’t grow up with guns at home. Instead, he became a gun owner after his neighborhood experienced a series of break-ins. As part of the process, he took two gun safety classes — and realized that his childhood friend (who did grow up around guns) didn’t know the basics of gun safety. “We shot the hell out of those guns [on a shooting trip together], and I had a lot of fun doing it,” he says now. “But I eventually realized how many potential errors we made. He’d been shooting his whole life, but there was a lot of potential for an incident. One of my buddies could’ve gotten shot — and we would’ve been a statistic.” In other words, even the dad rocking camo and an NRA bumper sticker might need a refresher course with Eddie Eagle.

Do: Talk to Your Kid.

“At whatever age you deem appropriate, teach your kids proper firearm safety, even if you’re not a gun owner,” says Chris. As several dads pointed out to me, the reality is this: Guns are part of American culture, and will be for a long time. Chances are, your kid will never encounter one, but if they do, they need to understand A) It’s not a toy; B) It’s not safe; C) The best thing to do is leave the room immediately and tell an adult.

“You want your kids to understand that it’s serious business,” says AJ from Houston. “Most kids, when you let them know like that, they tend to respect that. Or at least my kids do. It’s the same way I tell ‘em about dogs—don’t just go up to any old random dog and pet him, you always have to ask the owner if this dog’s safe to pet.”

Depending on your kid, having another authority figure reinforce the message might not hurt, either — a grandparent, for example, or even a firearms instructor. One dad I spoke with also said this is the kind thing that should be taught in schools. I don’t disagree.

***

Ultimately, the sad truth about guns is the same sad truth at parenting’s core: You can’t control what happens to your child. As the old cliché goes, all you can do is prepare him or her for the worst, and hope for the best. And one way to do that is to be open and honest with your fellow dads, even if it means a little awkwardness. Suffice it to say it’s better to have a little discomfort now than after tragedy has struck.