The awkward question that could save your child’s life

Note: This is the first in a two-part series on children and guns.

Whenever a child comes to my house for the first time, I make a point to ask the parent if the child has any food allergies.

If the child did have a life-threatening allergy, the parent would probably offer that information unprompted. But it’s become such a part of the parenting culture to inquire – a prerequisite for play dates or sleepovers.

Statistically speaking, however, a child is more likely to be accidentally shot and killed by a firearm than to die of an allergic reaction to a peanut. And yet the conversation about guns among friends, neighbors and relatives has not become as routine.

While food allergies have been internalized as a public risk and childhood epidemic, the same cannot be said about guns.

More than 3,000 children and teens, up to age 19, are shot unintentionally each year on average, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

In 2013, there were 108 accidental firearm deaths for those 18 and younger, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC does not specifically track peanut allergy deaths, but recorded 21 food-allergy-related deaths – children and adults – in that same year.

When looking at all firearm-related deaths for children and teens – not just accidental ones – the number is obviously much higher.

In 2010, there were 2,711 infant, child and teen firearm deaths. Writer Evan DeFilippis put this in perspective in an essay about the impact of firearms on children: “More American children and teenagers died from gunfire in 2010 – a single year – than U.S. troops in Afghanistan since 2001.”

Has any parent ever asked me if we have a firearm in the house before entrusting me with their child? No. I’ve hosted countless children, and I’ve never been asked that question.

Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association and mother of a 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, says she and her husband have been gun owners since before their children were born. Their children have grown up shooting and are comfortable around firearms.

“I’ve never had a parent ask” about how their weapons are secured, she said.

But she wouldn’t be offended if anyone did, she added. “I would tell them the truth: We do have firearms in the home. They are safely stored in a safe away from the children. They are inaccessible.”

Becky Morgan of St. Louis also has two teenagers, and is the Missouri chapter lead for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She said that recent high-profile news stories about accidental shooting deaths prompted her to ask the parents of her children’s friends about firearms.

“You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and you don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” she said. “But I would hate for something to happen, and I didn’t ask because I was uncomfortable.”

So far, every conversation she has had on the topic has gone smoothly. None of the parents she’s talked to have owned a firearm, which makes the follow-up much easier for her. She said if she did encounter a family with guns in the house, she would ask to have the friend come visit at her home instead.

While the NRA says it’s a personal decision for gun owners to decide how to store guns, they do advise keeping firearms “inaccessible to unauthorized users,” Mortensen said.

The way to reduce the risk of children and teen gun deaths is to store guns unloaded and locked, and to store ammunition separately, also locked. Teach your kids these simple instructions if they ever encounter a firearm: Assume it’s loaded. Don’t touch it. Leave the area and tell an adult immediately.

The topic falls naturally into a wider conversation about safety, said Danielle Alperin, program manager at the Brady Center.

“It’s something we’ve found people kind of worry might be uncomfortable or awkward, but it could save a child’s life,” she said. Plus, their research found there’s little if any resistance among gun owners to these questions. A responsible gun owner will want to tell you it’s safely stored.

Once a parent has that information, it’s up to them to decide how to act on it, depending on their comfort level, she said.

I’ve had to ask a close family member and longtime friends about their gun storage, after learning that the families owned guns. I do believe the people in my life who keep firearms in their homes are responsible adults who would do anything to keep their children, and my own, safe.

But I’ve decided that if I can casually ask about lethal peanuts, I can ask a few direct questions about a weapon designed to kill.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.