You’ve probably heard it before: You really should ask about guns in the home before your child goes over to a new friend’s house to play. It seems like a good idea, sure, but also that conversation sounds like a pretty awkward one to have with people you barely know. Still, as pediatric gun deaths rise around the country, doctors are urging parents to start getting comfortable with these initially uncomfortable conversations, as they may save your child’s life. We asked Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon at Northwell and the director of Northwell’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, who is committed to normalizing conversations about gun safety and has developed many resources — from scripts to slogans — to help parents who still feel shy about broaching the subject feel more confident.
Why parents need to ask about guns in the house
“Parents need to ask about guns in the household because having a gun in a household that is not securely stored significantly increases the risk of suicide and homicide in the household, as well as accidental injury,” Sathya explains. He says that guns that are securely stored are ones that are stored:
- Locked away. “The best is to have it in an actual gun safe, a biometric gun safe, or some sort of cable lock or gun lock that prevents it from actually being discharged,” Sathya explains
- Separately from ammunition.
If your kids are in a house where there’s a firearm that is not securely stored, data shows that it’s possible for them to easily pick up that gun. “They’re curious and they can accidentally shoot themselves, a parent, a loved one, or a friend,” Sathya says. “Upwards of 5 million kids in America live in households with loaded and locked guns, and we see kids that do accidentally injure again themselves or kill another kid by accident because they're playing with a gun.”
Studies show that no matter how young a child is, even kids who are age 3 to 5, can find a gun and can operate and pull that trigger if there's nothing that stops them from doing that. In fact, a 2021 report from Everytown for Gun Safety found that almost one in three unintentional shooters were preschoolers. Unless parents have their household gun securely stored, sending a child to a playdate at a home with a gun comes with a significant risk.
Particularly of concern for children older than preschoolers is the possibility that your child is having some sort of mental health issue, Sathya says. “If they're suicidal, if they have access to a gun in someone else's house, they could use that weapon to intentionally kill themselves.” In light of these uncomfortable realities, he says parents must get used to asking these questions right alongside questions about who’s watching the kids when they’re swimming and if their friends’ house has baby gates or other safety precautions in place. “Just like we ask about other dangers when we send our kids over to someone’s house, we need to get normalized in asking about firearm safety.”
How to ask about guns in the house
Pediatricians like Sathya have learned to get comfortable asking about guns in the home and firearm storage, and he recommends parents take the same approach they do: “Loop it into other questions. Hey, do you guys have any child safety gates? Is there a pool? Anything else we should worry about? Do you guys happen to have a gun?”
Many of us already are in the habit of asking a few questions related to safety before our kids go to a new friends’ house. Maybe your child has allergies, or is afraid of dogs — whatever the thing you usually warn about or ask about, consider looping in a question about guns and storage.
If that still feels awkward, Sathya’s best trick is simply to outsource the decision to ask about guns to your family doctor. “Literally say, my doctor told me to ask.”
The 2 essential questions to ask about guns in the home:
- Do you have a gun or guns in your home?
- How is it stored?
How to talk to your kids about guns
If your child is school-age, you’ve probably felt the need to talk with them about guns, or they may have even come home after a school lockdown drill full of questions. Maybe you don’t allow toy guns, and that has prompted tricky conversations. Whatever the reason, Sathya says that while it’s fine and good to teach little kids that a gun is dangerous — the same way we teach them that boiling water is too hot to touch, and it’s dangerous to run into the street — parents shouldn’t rely on conversations with their child to protect them from firearm dangers. As parents of little kids know, “just telling them to avoid something will not make them avoid it,” he says. Conversations with our kids about guns are OK, and even can be good, but Sathya stresses that they must be paired with these life-saving parent-to-parent conversations about guns and gun storage.
What to do we tell our children what to do if they see a gun in someone’s home or at school? “I would tell my kids that it's something that they shouldn't touch, and that if they find one or see one, don't grab it, just call an adult,” he says.
How to talk to other parents about guns
Perhaps surprisingly, Sathya feels strongly that the leading change agents for gun safety and reducing kids’ gun deaths are going to be parents who own guns, and he urges parents not to think of guns as a political issue, but rather as a question of public health that we can all agree on. No one wants kids to die. “Learned gun owners are the most strident advocates of firearm safety,” he says. “The issue is that there are many Americans and parents who bought guns during the pandemic and post-pandemic that have never operated a gun before. They don't necessarily understand the risks. They don’t think their kids can pull the trigger and kill someone or themselves.”
If you are a parent who does have guns stored safely in the home, Sathya says that preempting these conversations can be a great way to not only ensure your child’s safety, but also a significant opportunity to educate others. For example, if a child is coming to play at your house, you may help normalize these conversations by offering up the fact that you do have a gun in the home, and share the details of how you safely store it. In doing so, you lay the foundation for having that same conversation when it’s time to send your child to their home.
What to do if you don’t feel comfortable with the answer you get about guns in the home
Of course, this will depend somewhat on how close you are to this other family, and your overall comfort levels. But if it’s a situation that you're uncomfortable with, then you might have to elect to not send your kid over there at that time and explain why, or simply have play dates at your own house, Sathya suggests. Because yes, having this conversation does carry the risk that you’ll get an answer you don’t like. “Most of the time, we have found that when we have alternate opinions among families that we bring up this issue with, they're very receptive to the idea [of safe storage]. In the minority of cases where there is a gun that’s not stored safely, your options are either to educate that person and maybe offer an alternative or have the kids maybe meet outside at a park or something like that.”
What if you feel uncomfortable asking about guns before play date?
Unfortunately there are no easy tricks for getting started, but Sathya promises that it gets easier every time you do it. “It’s only going to start by trying,” he says, urging parents to read up, and get educated on what it really means to safely store a weapon so that you feel more confident in broaching the topic.
Most of all, Sathya says that parents have to get away from thinking of this as a political issue, or one that doesn’t affect them or their child. “If you view it as a political issue, we're never going to have change. Kids are going to keep dying. None of us are that far removed from people who’ve been affected by firearm death. This is something that can happen to your kid, no matter what.” A simple conversation really can help protect your kid. And, as these conversations become more broadly normalized, hopefully they will help protect all of our children and eventually help bring an end to the gun violence epidemic.
Lee, L., Fleegler, E., Goyal, M., Fraser, K., Laraque-Arena, D., Hoffman, B., MD, (2022) Firearm-Related Injuries and Deaths in Children and Youth: Injury Prevention and Harm Reduction. Pediatrics, https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/150/6/e2022060070/189686/Firearm-Related-Injuries-and-Deaths-in-Children?autologincheck=redirected
Forde, K., et al, (2021) Preventable Tragedies: Unintentional Shootings by Children. Everytown For Gun Safety, https://everytownresearch.org/report/notanaccident/
Dr. Chethan Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon at Northwell and the director of Northwell’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention