Last year, when my daughter Nina was in third grade, she invited her friend Sophie* over to play. This was Sophie's first visit to our house. Her mother, Eliza*, stood in our foyer while we discussed a pick-up time. Then, as an impatient Nina started tugging Sophie up the stairs, Eliza asked me, "Do you keep guns in your house?"
I stared at her, taken aback. My husband and I have had no contact with guns of any kind; we don't know people who hunt or otherwise enjoy firearms. Most of our friends have little affection for the Second Amendment.
So when Eliza asked me whether we kept guns, it seemed ludicrous. We'd sooner keep a boa constrictor! I could see she was serious, though, so I assured her that ours was a gun-free establishment. As she walked back to her car, I thought, "I'm glad I'm not that overprotective."
In the four years we've lived in Belmont, MA., guns never appeared to be an issue. Our town is known for its excellent schools, cozy small-town setting with easy access to Boston, and well-heeled residents including our governor, Mitt Romney. Our police officers spend most of their time handing out speeding tickets and tracking down "missing persons" who wander off the picturesque grounds of McLean Hospital, an expensive mental health facility. We occasionally read about shootings in the Boston Globe, but those incidents seem far away.
Consequently, I forgot all about Eliza's startling question until a few months ago when I went to pick Nina up after school. She came running to me, her cheeks flushed. "Mom," she gasped. I expected some heartwarming news: Had the class bunny rabbit had babies? Had she snagged the part of Wendy in the school production of Peter Pan? "Henry got shot!" she blurted. "He's in the hospital, but he's going to be okay." Henry was a new boy who'd just joined Nina's fourth-grade class. I didn't know anything about him, but the fact that her 9-year-old classmate had been shot in Belmont was incredible news.
That night, there happened to be a PTA meeting scheduled. After routine matters like the fourth-grade graduation ceremony were discussed, the meeting was adjourned. But many parents, including me, stuck around hoping to learn more about what had happened to Henry. A few parents knew the families involved.
"So I heard this boy was shot," someone said. "What happened, exactly?" It turned out that Henry had been visiting his cousin, a Belmont sixth-grader, when the older boy decided to show his young cousin the unlicensed handgun his father kept in his closet, inside an unlocked briefcase. He didn't know it was loaded; the gun accidentally fired, ramming a bullet through Henry's arm in two places.
One woman pointed out that Henry's uncle had once owned a restaurant. "Maybe," she wondered aloud, "he got the gun to protect himself from robbers." The other parents and I looked at each other, shaking our heads. Even if he had a good reason for owning a weapon, which seemed questionable at best, the fact remained that keeping a loaded, unlocked gun in a house where one's own children and their friends might gain access to it was grossly and inexcusably negligent.
I turned to Eliza, who was standing nearby, and confessed that while I'd thought it bizarre when she'd asked me the gun question, I now understood why she did: Our children could have been in that house. Eliza confided that having grown up in Minnesota, where hunting is popular and guns are commonplace, she'd known several children who'd been killed or maimed in gun accidents. "My dad and brother are hunters," she said. "But they always keep their guns unloaded and locked up, with the ammunition locked away elsewhere. Unfortunately, not everyone is that careful."
She knows what she's talking about. Last week in our town, gun violence erupted again, with far worse consequences. A father of three, ages 20, 18, and 13, was furious with his wife because she'd told him she wanted to divorce him and move to Florida with their youngest child. While the couple argued in their bedroom, the man locked their door and got out his semiautomatic pistol. He shot and killed his wife before blowing himself away. Their two younger children were home at the time; they broke down the bedroom door to get to their parents and found a bloody scene.
Despite these recent bursts of gun violence, Belmont is still considered a very safe town; the crimes that occur here are well below the national average. Apparently, it's only when you -- or your children -- go inside the houses that you need to worry: You never know who has a loaded gun. This is true, I've learned, no matter where you live.
* Most names have been changed to protect privacy.
Mary Granfield is a writer living in Belmont, MA. She has written for Self, Woman's Day, and People.
Copyright © 2004.