Robert Brothers lives in Lower Merion Township, one of the safest communities around, boasting a violent crime rate nearly 88 percent lower than the national average. Brothers, 44, is a stay-at-home dad to his two children, ages 5 and 10, and says he is left-leaning in his politics. He also is a handgun owner.

Brothers purchased his gun when he was pursuing a job in law enforcement that he didn't end up taking. He keeps it, he said, because he enjoys target practice. He secures the gun and the ammunition and clips that hold the bullets in two separate biometric safes that require his thumbprint to open. He stores the safes in a room with double locks on the door to which only he has the keys.

"If you haven't locked your gun in a biometric safe in a locked room, and you haven't explained to your family that it's a killing machine, then I think you shouldn't own one," Brothers said.

Despite those precautions, Brothers has had to explain to his neighbors why he owns a gun at all. One time, the parent of his child's friend, knowing that Brothers was training for a law enforcement job, asked how he secured his gun before she allowed her daughter on a play date.

It's a reasonable question. Roughly four in 10 American adults report living in a gun-owning household, according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. Around seven in 10 have experienced firing a gun.

And it's an important one. More child deaths are caused by handguns and other firearms than by the flu or asthma, according to a report last year in the journal Pediatrics. Nearly 1,300 children in the United States are killed by guns and 5,790 are treated for gunshot wounds each year. Gunshot wounds are the third-leading cause of death among children ages 1-17 and the second-leading cause of injury-related death, the analysis reports. And only 10 percent of people who attempt suicide with a firearm survive, versus the 97 percent who survive attempting suicide by cutting themselves or swallowing pills.

But asking whether a family owns guns is a sticky area for many parents. Some say they are uncomfortable asking but would really like to. Others say they always ask, but get mixed reactions.

Jill Sackett, a child psychiatrist who practices in Springfield Township, Delaware County, has three young kids of her own — and almost always asks whether the family has guns before one of them goes on a new play date. "It's so awkward," Sackett said. "I actually hate asking. Every time I get that anxious butterfly-feeling in my stomach."

Still, Sackett believes asking about firearms in the home should be just as common as asking about whether a child visiting her home has food allergies. "Ultimately, they're both safety questions," Sackett said. And when it comes to inquiring about firearms, she said she reminds herself that she's "not trying to be rude."

Usually the answer is no, there are no firearms in the houses of her children's playmates — except for the dad who joked that they did own Nerf guns. One mother admired Sackett's courage, saying she had always wanted to ask about guns, but had been afraid to do so.

Inquiring about firearms is a "tricky question," said Matthew Wintersteen, a psychologist at Thomas Jefferson University whose research and treatment expertise is around suicide. The question can feel invasive to another family. "The most important thing is that when our kids are spending time with other families that we get to know those families and understand their environment because that makes a difference," Wintersteen said, admitting that "it's not a simple task unless you have lots of free time."

Wintersteen, who has three children, has never asked whether a friend's family owned a firearm. He points out that there can be any number of potential perils in a home, such as pornographic material or medications left within reach. "Kids are just exposed to tons of things that we were never exposed to as children," Wintersteen said. It's impossible to ask all the questions, and trying to do so can be "really isolating them from developing relationships."

If a parent feels compelled to inquire about guns and other touchy subjects, Wintersteen suggests saying something like: "Thank you for the invitation to have my child over. I realize we haven't had a chance to get to know each other much. I do have a couple questions I ask of everybody when my kids come over" — so "it normalizes it," Wintersteen said.

In Yuri Zalzman's house, it's no secret that the family has firearms, since he owns of The Gun Range in the Spring Garden section of Philadelphia. To put other parents at ease, Zalzman invites them into his home to see how he secures their guns. "It's gaining peace of mind that despite the fact that this family is obviously in the gun business, the house is not an unsafe environment," Zalzman said.

Zalzman, like Brothers, uses biometric gun safes and educates his extended family about gun safety. The main rules: Keep your finger off the trigger; always assume a gun is loaded; never pass a gun from person to person; and never point a gun at another person.

Robert Brothers shows a biometric gun safe, which can be opened only when it recognizes his fingerprint.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Robert Brothers shows a biometric gun safe, which can be opened only when it recognizes his fingerprint.

His twin daughters started shooting under his guidance at age 6 — when Zalzman felt they were old enough to understand how to safely handle a firearm. In his home, Zalzman said, guns are just a normal part of their life. "In my house I could leave a rifle sitting there, and it's not an instrument that attracts interest because it's lost its mystique." Nevertheless, he keeps his guns locked up at all times.

Jessica Kapadia of Media is the Philadelphia lead for Be SMART for Kids. The acronym stands for: Securing guns responsibly, Modeling responsible behavior around guns, Asking about the presence of guns in other homes, Recognizing the risk of teen suicide, and Telling your peers to be smart.

Be SMART advocates for making the question about guns part of the general conversation parents have before play dates, talks that might include asking whether the other family owns any pets, whether they have an enclosed pool, whether there are any food allergies, and so on. Kapadia says she tries to make it less intimidating by offering her information first: "Our kids don't have any food allergies, so there may be things in our home that your child might be allergic to, and we don't have guns in the house so you don't have to worry about that."