OUR three daughters have reached the age of sleepovers and visits to friends' homes. They're delighted with their new freedom. My wife and I are relieved to have emerged from the era of nighttime feedings and enjoy watching our children blossom into social creatures.
But the parents of our children's friends are sometimes taken aback when we ask, before we let our kids pay a visit, ``Do you have guns in your house?''
Our family, thankfully, has not been touched by the epidemic of gun violence in America. But we read the newspaper.
``Toddler, mistaken for burglar, is killed,'' was the headline on a story last December. Three-year-old Jonathan Hicks of Jackson, Miss., was shot to death after he tripped a motion detector in his living room. Police said the boy was apparently enthralled by the lights of the family Christmas tree. Awakened by the alarm, his stepmother saw something move in the dark and fired a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol, hitting Jonathan in the head.
``Child shot dead as she slept,'' read another headline two days later. This time, police aren't sure who fired the rifle that killed Savannah Marie Lang, 2, of Adamsville, Fla. They are focusing on the boyfriend of the child's mother, but the detail that interested me was that the rifle had been in an unlocked closet.
Half the homes in the United States contain firearms, a stockpile of an estimated 200 million guns, according to a 1991 estimate by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Ours is not one of them, but several studies, including one just last month, demonstrate that our caution is justified.
Over one-third of the gun owners questioned in a 1989 survey by the Harvard School of Public Health survey said they keep their guns loaded some of the time, while over half said they don't keep their firearms locked up, disregarding safety procedures called for even by gun organizations.
The researchers concluded that ``easy access to a loaded gun'' may be a key factor in many of the 1,500 annual deaths from unintentional shootings, including 277 victims age 15 and under. Even more worrisome for parents was the finding of a Harvard survey of gun owners taken last spring: ``Of 311 gun owners with children younger than 18 years in the household, 14 percent keep firearms loaded and unlocked.''
I owe the Steber family of Liverpool, N.Y., a Syracuse suburb, for the idea to find out whether our children will be playing in a home with a gun.
Like us, the Stebers never had a firearm in their home; their children didn't even play with toy guns. ``Most people who live in the suburbs don't consider guns a problem,'' Mary Steber told me in an interview. ``You warn your kids about sex and drugs and alcohol and getting in a car with a stranger. Yet guns were never mentioned in our house. We never thought of it as a problem.''
Their attitude changed in 1989 when their 14-year-old son Michael was shot to death while watching a football game at a classmate's house. The friend's father, a retired policeman, kept a collection of guns in an unlocked closet.
Now whenever Michael's siblings visit a new friend, they make a point of reassuring their parents, ``Don't worry, they don't have any guns.''
As politicians continue to wrangle over gun control laws, that approach strikes me as an eminently sensible precaution that parents all over America would be wise to take.
My wife and I would prefer that our kids play in a nation free of guns.
We know how unlikely that is. But at least the gun-owning public should be willing to take the steps necessary to protect innocent people.
We intend to keep asking, when we drop the girls off to play or spend the night, ``Do you have guns?'' So far, the answer has always been no.
In the event the family of our child's friend does have a gun, we just want to be assured that they follow common-sense safety guidelines. Unfortunately, there's a good chance that many gun owners will heed a loophole opened by the National Rifle Association in its generally safety-conscious training materials. Even though it supports keeping guns unloaded and locked at home, the NRA says a gun kept for protection may be stored loaded, although in a secure place, out of reach to ``unauthorized users,'' such as children.
So my wife and I will weather the occasional strange looks and the possibility that a gun-owning parent may not want our children playing with theirs.
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