It's a question that a lot of parents are reluctant to ask. Our advice: Get over it and find out.

outline of a gun
Credit: Holly Limden

Loaded Question

From the time my son was 4 years old, my husband and I have made it a habit to inquire about guns before we allow him to play at a new friend's house. We phrase our question gently but directly: "I know you probably don't like to talk about things like this, but I need to ask if you have a gun in your house." We usually explain that we're asking because of a family tragedy. Twenty years ago, my husband's teenage cousin was killed while he and a friend were horsing around with his mother's handgun. Needless to say, his death devastated the family.

When our son was born, my husband and I decided that along with asking questions about seat-belt use and inappropriate movies, we'd also always find out about guns. Because I ask, I've discovered some things I wouldn't have expected. I learned that, as homeowners without guns, we're in the minority on our block. I found out about a politically liberal mother who keeps a locked and unloaded gun in her home. And I know of another family who has several handguns and shotguns with trigger locks, and who says they keep the ammunition stored separately. Although I almost always feel nervous asking, not one person has ever seemed upset by my question. What's most remarkable to me is that before leaving a child in my care no one has ever asked me whether I keep guns in my home.

The Stats

Parents seem willing to discuss almost any intimacy: breastfeeding, co-sleeping, spanking, how much their home has appreciated, the tawdry details of the latest Hollywood or Washington sex scandal. But they're oddly reticent when it comes to talking about firearms. Socially, it just seems easier to assume that a playdate's parents are taking adequate measures to protect him from guns.

Sadly, that's not always the case: According to a recent report in Pediatrics, nearly 1.7 million American children live in homes with unlocked, loaded firearms. So most experts agree that maintaining a head-in-the-sand posture on gun safety is a cop-out that puts kids at serious risk.

But it's a common one. A study by San Francisco General Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that parents are more confident than they should be about how well they protect kids from getting their hands on household guns. In 39 percent of families where parents said their 5- to 14-year-olds didn't know where guns were stored, the kids actually did know the location. In 22 percent of homes where the parents said their children had never handled a gun, the kids told researchers that they had.

When children can get their hands on guns, the danger is clear. "Kids see a ball, they bounce it. They see a gun; they shoot it," says Graham Snyder, M.D., an emergency-medicine specialist at WakeMed Health and Hospitals, in Raleigh, North Carolina. "Even young children know exactly what to do with a gun: Point at something and shoot it. That's what they see on TV or in the movies."

Playing It Safe

The good news is that, in recent years, there's been a growing awareness about gun safety, with physicians leading the charge. Since 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has urged doctors to ask, "Does anyone in your home have a gun?" and "Is the gun unloaded and locked up?" as part of a battery of standard questions during early childhood checkups, along with "Do you have smoke alarms?" and "Have you checked the batteries recently?" Not everyone, however, is in favor of these kinds of inquiries. Last year, Virginia legislators considered a bill that could have suspended or revoked the license of any doctor who asked patients questions about gun ownership. The measure failed, but by a close margin.

Schools, too, have begun to include gun safety as part of their regular curriculum, albeit slowly. One of the best-known initiatives is the "Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program," created by the National Rifle Association, which aims to educate children on what to do if they find themselves in the presence of a gun. A program for pre-kindergartners through third-graders, for instance, teaches children who see a gun to: "Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult."

While such initiatives help raise awareness, experts say that warning kids about the danger of firearms isn't enough to keep them safe. "Any parent knows that children don't always listen to what they're told," says Dr. Snyder.

Indeed, numerous studies by Marjorie Hardy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Florida, have shown that the powerful allure of a gun -- especially for boys -- easily outmatches the sternest warnings. In one study, a police officer spoke to a class of 60 kids, ages 4 to 6. The children were told, "Don't touch guns—they're dangerous. If you see a gun, leave the area. Go tell an adult." In a follow-up session, the children indicated they'd learned the lesson, repeating what they'd been told to do. "But when we left them alone with disarmed guns," Dr. Hardy says, "they picked them up and shot everything in sight."

In a second study, a group of 4- to 7-year-olds got five days of lectures on resisting peer pressure, making good choices, and distinguishing toys from dangerous objects. Even then, when left alone with a gun, 65 percent of the children picked it up and played with it. The bottom line: Simply talking with young kids about firearms isn't enough to keep them safe.

How to Steer Clear

That's why it's critical for parents to keep their kids away from guns—and the best way to do that is to always find out whether there's a weapon in any home where a kid goes to play. "You tell your toddler not to run into the street, but you also put up a fence," says Dr. Snyder. "You tell your preteen not to go to inappropriate Web sites and chat rooms, but you may also install Internet filters. Why wouldn't you ask whether there are firearms in a place where your child plays? What do you have to lose?"

Many parents admit that approaching the subject can be difficult. "When I first started asking other parents, I was really intimidated," says Paula Beer, a mother from Brooklyn, who began inquiring after reading a recommendation in a brochure. "But everyone I've asked has responded wonderfully. Parents say, 'That's a great question! I never thought to ask that.'" So far, no one has owned up to having a firearm in their home, Beer says. But if they did? "I'd tell them, 'It's not a judgment on you, but I have a very active little boy who's really curious and into everything. I just don't feel comfortable with him playing in a place where there are guns. Let's set up a playdate at my place.'"

That's what many experts believe is the best response. The AAP says that ideally there shouldn't be any guns in a home with kids. But aware that not everyone will abide by that recommendation, the AAP also offers guidelines on how to safely store firearms: "The gun should be unloaded and locked away, and the ammunition should be locked in a separate location," says Robert Sege, MD, chief of the division of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the New England Medical Center, in Boston. Dr. Snyder goes even further: He has coined what he calls the "20-2 rule": That is, in households with children, parents should have their guns secured with enough layers of protection—a locked gun safe, a trigger lock, and bullets locked away from the unloaded weapon—that a 20-year-old with 2 hours on his hands couldn't get to them. "If a 20-year-old can get to them with minimal effort, so can your average fifth-grader," Dr. Snyder says.

Tragic Consequences

If kids get their hands on weapons, the consequences can be tragic -- a lesson that Jeanne Caroline, of Largo, Florida, learned the hard way. In 2003, her 12-year-old son, Seanne, was killed when a friend decided to show off his dad's unlocked, loaded .357 Magnum. The weapon was "hidden" under the couch in the living room. "I had thought of myself as an overprotective mom," says Caroline. "I always asked the things I was supposed to ask of other parents: Are you going to use a seat belt? Is your dog friendly? I just didn't know to ask about guns. I assumed since my house was safe, my neighbors' homes were too."

Now Caroline has devoted her life to educating the public about gun safety. Through her organization, Seannes Wish Foundation, she's made a film for children, spoken at numerous school assemblies and camps, and organized an annual charity-golf tournament to increase awareness about the issue and to raise funds for gun-education programs.

Above all, Caroline has been urging moms and dads to ask the question she wishes she had asked. Her message is simple: "Never assume that other parents think of safety the same way you do." Always ask about guns -- and make sure you're completely comfortable with the answers -- before you let your child go anywhere to play.

Bringing Up the Tough Topic

Are you embarrassed to inquire about guns? Don't be: 97 percent of parents, including gun owners, wouldn't mind the question at all, reports PAX, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending gun violence. Here are ways PAX suggests you can broach the subject.

  • "At our last doctor's appointment, my pediatrician asked me about gun storage. And I haven't stopped thinking about it since."
  • "I feel really weird asking this, and maybe you'll think I'm totally neurotic, but..."
  • "I want you to know that I've spoken to my kids about not playing with guns. Is this an issue that you've thought about?"
  • "All of us in the PTA (or in our church group or some such) have committed to making sure our children are safe. So I've gotten in the habit of asking everyone..."
  • "My child is so curious and gets into everything. I worry what would happen if he came across a gun."
  • "Did you see that newspaper article about the boy who found his father's hidden gun?"
  • "I had no idea until recently that about 35 percent of households with children have a gun. So I've started asking other parents before Henry plays at their home."