Gun-safety legislation remains one of the most contentious issues in politics, and despite public demand for state representatives to take action, we are seeing more deaths from guns than ever. In 2023 alone, there have been more than 200 mass shootings in the US, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And children aren't immune to the gun-violence crisis. In fact, firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens in the US, according to a recent report in The New England Journal of Medicine.
In light of the recent shootings, pediatricians and parents are urging caretakers to ask if there are guns present in the home before they allow their children to go over for play dates. It's a question many people haven't ever considered asking; others may have considered it but not know how to bring it up. But it's more crucial than ever, experts say.
"I think normalizing these conversations is very important. As a parent, you are trusting another individual to care for your child while they are in their home, and you have the right to know what types of things your child could be subjected to, because you as a parent have to make sure your child is going to be safe," says Emily Wisniewski, MD, a board-certified pediatrician at Mercy Medical Centre in Baltimore.
Ahead, we ask experts how parents can approach these conversations and what gun-safety rules they should ask about.
Why It's Important to Talk to Other Parents About Firearms
The US has the highest child and teen firearm mortality rate compared to other wealthy countries, including Canada, France, and Japan, per the Kaiser Family Foundation. The US firearm child and teen death rate is a full seven times higher than the rate in Canada, which is the country with the second-highest firearm death rate among children and teens. This death rate includes accidents or undetermined deaths, as well as suicides and assaults.
Moreover, about 4.6 million kids live in homes with unlocked loaded guns, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). If your child enters one of these home for a play date or study session, they're at an increased risk for accidental or unintentional shootings and injuries. Per the AAP, there were at least 2,070 unintentional shootings by kids that resulted in 765 deaths and 1,366 nonfatal gun injuries between 2015 and 2020.
"Generally speaking, pediatricians always encourage firearms to be stored away from children in a locked safe with ammunition stored separately," says Kelly Fradin, MD, director of pediatrics at Atria Institute and author of "Advanced Parenting: Advice For Helping Kids Through Diagnoses, Differences, and Mental Health Challenges." "We approach pool safety to prevent drowning with layers of precautions — pool fences, swim lessons, water watchers, family rules, and supervision. Similarly, asking if there are unlocked firearms is one important layer that we have control over as parents."
How to Ask If There Are Firearms in the Home
The best time to have these gun-safety talks is when you're scheduling play dates. Dr. Fradin suggests you can initiate this conversation with other parents by simply saying something along the lines of, "My child gets into everything and doesn't know how to handle a firearm, so I have to ask — is there an unlocked gun in your home?" This type of phrasing makes it clear that the parent's line of questioning doesn't come from a place of judgement but of practical planning, which can make the topic feel more approachable.
Another way of normalizing the ask is by including other topics in the conversation. For example, ask what activities the kids could be doing and what things they may need, such as a car seat or booster seat, as well as medications, Dr. Wisniewski says. She suggests that at the end of the conversation, you say something like: "I've been seeing a lot of children in the news lately who have accidentally gotten into guns, and it has made me a little bit scared, so I have to ask, out of curiosity, do you have any guns in the home?"
If the parent says they do own guns, the next step is asking more questions about how many guns are in the home and how they're stored. Make sure to ask if the bullets are stored separately from the firearm — in a different, locked cabinet — and whether their children know where to find the keys or lock combinations to either the firearm's case or the bullet's. The AAP advises parents not to store unlocked and loaded guns in the car or anywhere on their property, like in a backyard shed.
"As long as the parent is coming at it from a general concern for the safety of their child, in my opinion, it is OK to ask the questions," Dr. Wisniewski says. "If you have a parent who has guns in their home and is taking offence to the questions/concerns raised, always fall back on, 'I just want to make sure my kid is going to be safe. The amount of gun violence we have been seeing in the news makes me nervous, and I am just not comfortable at this time.'"
What to Do If You're Not Comfortable With the Answer
It's your right as a parent to make the best decision for your child. So whether you feel that a parent isn't practicing gun safety, you're uncomfortable with letting your child visit a house with any guns at all, or anything about the parents' response makes you ill at ease, you should feel comfortable offering an alternative plan.
Invite the other child to your house, for example, or suggest meeting somewhere outside of the home, such as a nearby zoo or playground. This way, your child can still play with their friends, but you can put your mind at ease that they're in a safer environment.
As an extra precaution, you should also teach your kids about what to do if they happen to come across a firearm at a friend's house or elsewhere. "It's a good idea to start talking to children about guns at an early age, just like you would talk to them about tobacco, alcohol, or drugs," Dr. Wisniewski says. "Inform your child they shouldn't touch [guns]; they should go tell the adult they're with that they found the gun and leave it alone."
You can also explain to them why they should be so cautious about guns, in an age-appropriate way, she says: "Discuss with your child that guns can be very dangerous and can hurt people," she suggests. To make sure they understand the lessons, go over it with them every so often, asking, "What should you do if you find a gun?"
While you might feel a little uncomfortable the first time or two you have a conversation, it will get easier over time. Just keep reminding yourself: you're coming from the right place. And you might be spreading more good than you realise. Parents who have guns in their homes can also find these conversations helpful, as some don't know the proper protocol for gun safekeeping. So discussing it with them may make them reconsider how they're storing their guns and what they can do better.
At the end of the day, it's not about being nosy or coming off as judgmental — it's lifesaving.