Of course, such detailed talks would seem less crucial if all guns were locked and stored securely. So even if you've taught your child the safety rules, you still need to be proactive to keep her surroundings free of loaded firearms.
Before allowing a playdate at someone else's house, it's essential to ask the parents about guns. You can't count on all families being aware of gun safety, in part because it's become increasingly difficult for pediatricians to counsel them about firearms as they do about car seats and seat belts. In 2011, Florida made it illegal for doctors to ask patients about guns in the home. While an injunction has prevented this legislation from being enforced (the status is still being contested in court), similar bills were considered in 2012 in Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, though they ultimately failed. Adherents of these proposals claim that doctors' questions are an invasion of privacy and some have even attempted to paint the queries as a threat to their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Valerie Phillips, a mom of two in Murray, Kentucky, regularly inquires about other families' gun practices. "Most people in our area hunt, as we do," she says. When her then 8-year-old daughter, Ella, was invited to a sleepover at a new friend's house, Phillips slipped in a question about firearms when she RSVP'd. "I asked about the evening's planned activities and the morning pickup time," she recalls. "Then I said, 'Hey, can you tell me how you store your guns?' "
Her approach is a savvy one. Broaching a sensitive subject like gun safety is a lot easier when you make it part of a routine conversation. Granted, it can be a bit awkward if you don't know the host parents or you can't assume, as Phillips does, that families in your community are likely to have guns. You could bring it up in the context of your child's curious tendencies, suggests Parents advisor Gary A. Smith, M.D., Dr.P.H., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Say something like, "Jake gets into everything, and I worry that if he saw a weapon he wouldn't know it was dangerous. So I always have to ask, 'Do you have guns in your home, and if so, how are they stored?' "
There's no need to be embarrassed. "If an adult is offended by questions about your child's safety, you may want to consider whether that home is a place where you want your child to play," says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and cofounder of the Center to Prevent Youth Violence, a national nonprofit public health and safety organization in New York City.
If you're not satisfied with the parent's answer, you might consider postponing the playdate -- or inviting her child over to your house instead. Don't be swayed by assurances that a firearm, though not locked away, is in a good hiding spot. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that close to 30 percent of gun-owning parents thought that their children were unaware of their weapon's location. Not only did 39 percent of those parents' kids know where to find it, but 36 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls contradicted their parents' claim that they had never handled a household gun. That's life-threatening, and not just for older kids: By age 1, a toddler can squeeze your finger with 7 pounds of pressure, approximately the same amount needed to pull a gun trigger. "The 'my-child-knows-better' attitude can be very dangerous, even deadly," says Gross.
Indeed, it's up to parents to know (and do) better. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have established penalties for owners who leave firearms accessible to kids. In 12 states where such measures had been in effect for at least a year, accidental shooting deaths of children under 15 dropped by 23 percent. To find out if your state is among them, visit the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence at smartgunlaws.org. If not, ask your local legislators to enact gun-safety laws geared toward protecting young kids.
While the Bellamys still own guns and hunt, they're now on a crusade to prevent tragedies like the one that ended their son's life. The Matthew Bellamy Project raises firearm awareness among parents and provides free gun safety locks to anyone; call 843-602-4952 . "Matthew's friend has to live with what happened for the rest of his life, but he's not to blame," Mylissa says. "Even children who grow up around guns can't be trusted to do the right thing. They're still just curious kids. Adults are the ones who need to be responsible."