Keeping Our Kids Safe After Newtown

“Bam! Bam! You’re dead, Mommy!”

Barely a month after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I can’t help but wince at my son’s words. Like many parents I know, what happened in Newtown hit entirely too close to home. I heard about the shooting that Friday from a friend, and underwent a self-imposed media blackout that weekend. My reluctance to look at Facebook and the web only served to make the Monday afterwards an emotional rollercoaster of grief, anger and sadness. After sorting through my thoughts, I had to agree with the sentiment that hugging your babies isn’t enough. I was (and am still) committed to living my life a little different, in memory of those little faces. Even now, I tear up just thinking about it.

I admit it, I got swept up in the holiday madness. I didn’t contact my representatives (although I still plan to). Amid the outpouring of action, from making snowflakes to adorn the elementary school the students would attend in the new year to donating money to sending teddy bears, I felt paralyzed. At least, now that the new year has started and school is back in session, I am following closely the discussion in Washington about the ways we might prevent this horror from happening again.

Sidestepping politics (since everyone has their own views, and we can all Google information to suit our persuasion), I am left to decide: what can I, as a mother, do to keep my family safe?

Our family does not own a gun, and for us at least, Newtown was not a reason to purchase one. Yes, you can argue that mentally healthy gun owners do not enter an elementary school and start shooting, but the the fact remains that most murders in the United States are committed with firearms. Admittedly, it may be hard to separate deep-seated beliefs about gun ownership from the equation, but the number of victims of violent crime perpetrated by a knife or other weapon pales by comparison.

Despite what I was surprised to learn — that gun ownership is actually on the decline — there are still a staggering number of guns in this country. The Congressional Research Service estimated that in 2009 there were 310 million firearms in the United States (to put this in perspective, there are 314 million people living in this country, according to the US Census). This means that about forty percent of married households contain guns, and many households contain more than one gun. That means, statistically speaking, that of the 10 houses on our quiet cul de sac, where my seven-year-old son roams more freely, four could have guns. Close to home, indeed.

After a lot of thinking, talking, reading and worrying, here are what I see as some takeaways about keeping kids safe in our country, post-Newtown:

Start a conversation
Guns and gun safety are on a lot of parents’ minds, as I realized when I started poking around for my own purposes. I was interested to read this article, which appeared on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, about having a conversation with other parents about guns in their homes. Having recently crossed the threshold of having my son go to friend’s houses without me, it occurred to me to have this conversation, but as the article acknowledges, it can be a difficult question to ask a playdate host. What if the other parent says that yes, that they do own a gun? What then? When do you bring up the subject? How do you ask the questions without offending someone?

I still haven’t had this conversation with another parent, despite talking about Sandy Hook a lot. I have to remind myself that if this issue is important to me, I need to get over my misgivings and just ask. It’s very likely that the hangup is my own, and that gun owners do not shy away from this type of conversation. The Times article mentions a parent opening up about her gun status on Facebook, and this is certainly one way to go, although I’d prefer face-to-face conversations. The older our kids get, I’m finding that I have less contact with the other parents, however, but I could certainly start the conversation by saying, “Just so you know, we don’t have any guns in our house. Is there anything I should know about your child to keep him/her safe, such as food allergies?” If you take your turn as the host first and then the other parent reciprocates, it can make having a discussion about guns in their house a little easier to broach.

Another scary point the Times article makes is that there is a gap between what gun owners think their children know about their guns and what the reality may be. Thirty nine percent of parents believe their children know where firearms are stored in the house, while the reality is that 73% of younger children and 79% of older children are privy to this information. In my mind, that means in addition to having conversations with parents, I need to talk to my own child.

At dinner one night, we talked to my gun-loving boy about what he should do if he sees a gun in a home. We advised him to not touch it, even if it might be a toy gun, and to find and tell an adult. If another child picks up a gun, he should leave, immediately. In retrospect, living in our age of Nerf guns and all kinds of shooting instruments, we might discuss how he might determine upon sight what is a real or fake gun. But, the best advice is probably to stay away. My son told us he wouldn’t touch a gun, if he found one, in another person’s home, but I’m skeptical, which leaves a lump in my throat.

Keep things in perspective
As scary as the threat of gun violence is, in reality, I have to remind myself that I put my child at a higher risk of injury every time we buckle ourselves into the car. As devastating as these school shootings are, fewer than 10 people died in school shootings in 2009, as compared to 34,000 traffic fatalities occurring during the same time period. So, despite ability of the headlines to prey upon my maternal instinct to protect my offspring, that little voice in the back of my head doggedly reminds me that I need to keep the big picture in mind.

Do something
One antidote to worry and fear is to do something. Many schools are inviting parents to help revisit and update school safety protocols. I’m not sure if that’s how I will choose to be involved, but as I mentioned earlier, I do plan to make sure my political representatives know where I stand on the various discussions on the table around gun violence.

I plan to initiate instead of avoid talk about guns around my family. It may mean we take my son to shoot clay pigeons when he’s a bit older (as I did as a child), so he can learn more about guns and how they work. I have certainly learned that avoiding talking about other topics, including religion, does my child no good. As parenting often requires, it will mean I need to go outside of my comfort zone a bit to untangle my beliefs on violence with what may or may not be true. I’ll need to navigate the muddy waters of how to talk about the “bad guys” without making my child fearful. I’ll need to accept that my kid loves toy weapons and better understand why.

I am sad and angry that we live in a world where I’m forced to confront the fear of gun violence, but for my family and my child, it is something I must and will do.

How have you talked to your children about guns and violence? Have you had more of these discussions since Newtown? Have you asked other parents about whether they have guns in their home? Gun owners: how do you talk to your children about gun safety?

A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 6-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.