Why I Ask About Guns

I-ASK-Website-LogoThis Friday (June 21st) is ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Day. This collaboration between the American Academy of Pediatrics and The Center to Prevent Youth Violence is an effort to encourage parents to help keep kids safe by asking, “Is there a gun where your child plays?”

I’ve long asked families whether there are guns in their home during well child visits. As my son gets older and goes on play dates I’ll need to start asking parents whether there are guns in the home he is visiting and whether they are safely stored. These are not easy questions. Sometimes we avoid asking because it feels awkward. Some criticize or worry that asking is an invasion of privacy. These questions should be considered neither awkward nor invasive. They must become the norm. This is an essential part of keeping our children safe.

Here’s why I ask.

I ask because kids are curious. They like to explore their environment. This is their job, essentially. If guns are in that environment, they will touch them, play with them. They will shoot them, even if they’ve been told not to. In 2010, there were 134 deaths and 2886 injuries in the 0-19 year old age group due to unintentional firearm injuries. Those are the numbers. The stories behind those numbers are absolutely heartwrenching. In my time as a pediatrician I have already been involved in the care of a number of kids whose lives and families are forever altered by devastating firearm injuries. Young children who undergo multiple surgeries and excruciating rehabilitation after a terrible accident. Families with good intentions. Parents who desired to protect their family from intruders with a firearm, but who didn’t realize that their child would find the gun and accidentally shoot a loved one. Take one look into those parents’ eyes and I can assure you, you’d start asking too.

I ask in memory of a teen patient lost to suicide. A friend’s father’s gun to his head. 749 children and teens died due to firearm suicide in 2010. Some argue that these kids would have found another way to take their lives even without access to a gun. The thing is, suicide attempts by firearm are far more likely to be successful than attempts by other means. I’ve cared for a number of patients after unsuccessful non-firearm related suicide attempts. With these kids there was time to get them to the hospital. Time to help them heal physicially. Time to get them the mental health care they so desperately need. With firearm suicides, we don’t get this chance.

I ask. In clinic, it is a matter of routine. Like bike helmets, and tobacco exposure, and car seats. I ask, “Is there a gun in the home?”. If the answer is yes, I ask if the gun is unloaded. I ask if the gun and the ammunition are stored and locked up separately. I don’t judge. I don’t report to anyone. I just ask. I’ve had many more “yes” answers than I would have expected just a few years ago. I’ve had parents realize that a relative’s gun was loaded and available in the home where their young children were staying and thank me for bringing it up. I’ve had families wonder why I ask and we’ve had some good discussions.

And, as awkward as it might feel, when my son starts playing at friends’ homes I’m going to have to ask, “Is there a gun where our children will be playing?” If the answer is yes I’ll ask, “Is the gun unloaded and locked up separately from ammunition?” I’ll ask because I care too much about him and other kids not to; and because I know that 40% of homes with children in America have guns. If they’re stored safely, not a problem. If not, maybe we can meet at the park.

For more information:

ASK (Asking Saves Kids) campaign from The Center to Prevent Youth Violence

Should Parents Ask Other Parents About Guns in the Home? by Bonnie Rochman

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