In the wee hours of Aug. 24, Philadelphia police were called to Methodist Hospital for a shooting victim. They discovered an 11-year-old boy who had accidentally shot himself in the face with a family member’s gun. He survived.
Many children aren’t as lucky: In 2011, Noah Daigle’s best friend accidentally shot the 13-year-old because he didn’t think the gun was loaded.
“The safety had not been put on, and he picked the gun up, put it against Noah’s cheek, and pulled the trigger — in his words, expecting to hear it click,” said Noah’s mother, Ashlyn Melton.
Melton never asked whether there were guns in the house. A gun owner herself, she assumed any would be locked up. “Like I would assume they would put their seat belt on, that my child was being taken care of,” she said. “I didn’t even think to ask.”
An average of 17,000 children have been injured or killed by guns in the United States every year between 2011 and 2015, said Brendan Kelly of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence. One in three homes with children has a gun, and 80 percent of accidental shootings involving children happen in homes.
Yet, although many parents wouldn’t hesitate to ask about snacks or car seats before dropping a child off at a friend’s house, how many ask about guns? Are there guns in your house? Do you lock them up?
Both gun-control and gun-advocate leaders encourage owners of firearms to tell other parents before playdates that there is a gun in the house or to have visitors ask whether there are guns.
“If you’re a law-abiding gun owner, you have every right to keep that gun in your house, but the safest thing to do is keep it hidden away, locked and unloaded, with the ammunition hidden and locked away separately from the gun,” Kelly said. “Be transparent with any family members, friends, or neighbors bringing kids over to be sure everyone is aware of that danger.”
The Brady Center’s ASK Campaign — Asking Saves Lives — educates parents to inquire about guns before playdates. And the National Rifle Association created Eddie Eagle to tell kids from pre-K to fourth grade: If you see a gun, stop. Don’t touch. Run away. Tell a grown-up.
But not all gun owners feel it’s necessary to tell — especially if their guns are locked away — and not all visitors are comfortable asking the question.
Unless someone asked, Jessica Jimenez wouldn’t tell visitors about the gun she bought in January because she keeps it locked away and unloaded. She took lessons on shooting and safety through Protective Force, a security guard service company in Huntingdon Valley, after her 12-year-old son, Alejandro, had an opportunity to shoot as part of the Boy Scouts, and she thought it would be good to learn along with him.
In fact, most people who know she has a gun have a different question for her, based on her decision to keep her ammunition and gun separate. How could she use the gun effectively during a break-in if the gun isn’t loaded?
“But the chances of my curious 3-year-old getting hold of it, no matter how well I hide it, is probably higher than someone breaking into my house,” said Jimenez, 37, of Westampton, Burlington County.
Though he doesn’t own a gun, Michael Tieff assumes all gun owners with kids take the same precautions — the gun is locked away, unloaded — so he doesn’t ask when his kids, Charlotte, 6, and Simon, 3, go on playdates.
“I wouldn’t ask if they have batteries in their smoke detectors, and I wouldn’t ask if they have a gun,” said Tieff, 40, of the city’s Bella Vista section. He said he would be offended if somebody asked him about whether or where he had a gun, implying that his house is dangerous, “and they couldn’t trust me.”
Kelly, of the Center to Prevent Gun Violence, reminds parents that asking about guns shouldn’t be an awkward conversation, “just part of all the questions parents ask about food allergies, pets, or pools.”
But how exactly do you go about broaching such a topic — often with people you don’t know well, or at all?
The key is to remove the judgment and request permission to ask, said Lizzie Post, copresident of the Emily Post Institute. For example: “I’d love to have the boys play together. I have a boundary regarding firearms. May I ask if you have firearms in your home?” In this way, you are asking permission to have the conversation.
If the answer is no: “OK, I’d still love to have the boys get together. Do you want to meet at the park Sunday afternoon?”
If the parent does have a gun, you can then ask how he or she handles gun safety. If the response means you won’t want your child at that house, you could say: “I really appreciate you being candid with me. I’d still like to set up playdates for the boys outside the home for now. Would that be all right with you?” This gives the other parent choices, too, Post said.
Coleen Hill takes a similar tack. Before her 5-year-old son, Liam, plays at a friend’s house, she first asks the other parent if they have a dog — and then asks if they have a gun.
“I tell them it’s an important subject to me, and I hope you aren’t offended, but do you have a gun in your house,” said Hill, 37, of Society Hill, who doesn’t own one herself. “So far, the conversation has been positive, and so far the answer has been no, but I do expect that as we meet more people of different viewpoints, they might bristle at the question. But that’s not going to stop me from asking it.”
Guns are part of Terrence Gilmore Jr.’s jobs – as a school police officer at W.C. Bryant Promise Academy and as an assistant firearms instructor at Philly Firearms Academy in Willow Grove — so he knows to store his firearms in a closet in his East Falls house that is locked with a key. Even the door to the room where the guns are is locked, so when kids are over to play with his sons Terrence III, 9, and Trent, 8, they don’t have access. That’s why Gilmore, 34, doesn’t feel the need to mention the guns to the families of his children’s friends.
“They can’t get anywhere near my firearms.”