Parent-to-parent: Is the gun safely stored?

Does your neighbor have a gun? How is it stored? Do children have access to the gun?

In the wake of recent school shootings, Jody Pawel is advising parents on how to talk to one another about guns at home.

Giving fresh relevance to her topic are reports that 15-year-old T.J. Solomon in Conyers, Ga., broke into a locked case and used his stepfather's hunting rifles. Ms. Pawel acknowledges that this subject is not easy to broach.

But "your kids' life could depend on your bringing it up," says the educator who has lead workshops around the country during the past two months.

Such talk is backed up by some sobering statistics. Earlier this month, Hilary Rodham Clinton said: "More than 35 million households across America have guns and in a third of those homes the guns are stored loaded and unlocked." The Center to Prevent Handgun Violence reports that every day in America, 13 young people aged 19 and under are killed by guns and that more than 1.2 million elementary-aged, latch-key children have access to guns in their homes.

As the mother of a 14-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, Pawel has had some practice raising the subject of guns with other parents. The father of one of her son's playmates is a security guard. When the two boys first struck up a friendship, Pawel asked about where this man's gun was kept when he's off-duty.

She was relieved to find that he follows good gun-safety procedures. His gun is not only kept in a locked box and put in a locked closet, but that it's unloaded, and the ammunition is locked up separately. "They go all out to be careful," she says.

The lesson of Conyers, Ga., however, is that a locked case is sometimes not enough. "Children can be awfully clever," says Pawel. "You have to be extra sure that it's impossible for them to get their hands on those guns. Really, the best thing is to get the guns out of the house."

It's key to raise the topic of gun ownership without being confrontational, says Pawel. "If you weave the question into conversation casually, then people won't be offended," she says. "And if they are, you have a judgment call to make. Any responsible, caring parent won't get defensive."

Parents can use the recent school shootings as a way into this discussion. "It's such a hot topic now that everyone's talking about gun violence anyway," she explains, offering this set of questions as an example: " 'Gosh, I've always wondered about guns in homes, and these days especially. Do you guys happen to have one? How do you make sure it's off-limits to your kids?' "

Some gun owners welcome this kind of discussion. "I have talked with parents who assume that their gun is child-safe, but by the end of our talk, they say 'Now that you ask, I'd better double-check on that," she explains.

To find out who has guns at home, Tom Roberts, author of "Parenting," a university textbook, has made a point of socializing with all of the parents of his 15-year-old's friends.

He suggests broaching the subject by "sharing your own concerns first. Responsible parents will welcome this. These days, they probably have the same concerns."

But in some cases, no matter how tactfully the question is raised, a gun owner may not respond openly. He or she may feel it is an invasion of privacy or may feel uncomfortable revealing the truth. In this case, Pawel suggests, rehearse with your kids what to do if they discover that a gun is accessible in another's home. "Tell them to leave immediately, using any excuse they choose," she advises. Or the child should seek help from a parent or trusted adult, says the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

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