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Before the play date, the gun talk

By Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed May 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Conversations about gun safety are becoming more common before play dates, sleepovers
  • The Newtown shooting and other incidents are behind the move, experts say
  • Despite fears, most gun owners not offended by the question, Gun Safe Mom founder says
  • Wrap the question in with other safety issues and don't judge, experts say

Editor's note: The latest in a string of accidental shooting deaths involving young children has brought the issue of gun safety back to the spotlight. The article below, originally published in April, explores how parents gauge their children's safety level in a home where guns may be stored.

(CNN) -- It was a bit awkward the first time Kate Daggett asked the question.

She didn't want to offend her friends, after all, and it seemed rather personal. She stammered, she stalled. "I probably rambled for two or three minutes," she said.

Finally, she got it out.

What do you do with the guns in your house? the mother of two asked the parents of her teenage son's friends, both avid hunters.

It's not a new question -- about 19 million parents were asking it back in 2006, according to a survey conducted by the Center to Prevent Youth Violence.

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But in the wake of December's Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre -- and recent accidental shootings involving children -- it appears to be one that parents are asking more often before sending their kids on play dates and sleepovers.

Related: Parents defend right to keep guns in home

The Center to Prevent Youth Violence has been getting a lot more calls since the Newton shooting, said Becca Knox, a senior manager.

The group is behind the ASK campaign -- "Asking Saves Kids" -- which encourages parents to ask questions about guns in homes where their children play.

In a discussion about guns in homes on CNN's Facebook page, commenters agreed that asking the question is good parenting.

While some parents said they would never allow their children into a home where guns are kept, others were comfortable knowing that the guns were secure.

"You should be asking, 'Are your guns locked up?' " commenter Kristine Caster said. There's "no crime in having legal guns in your home."

Injuries are rare

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Despite incidents such as the recent death of a 6-year-old New Jersey boy shot in the head by a 4-year-old playmate, as well as the accidental shooting of a Tennessee sheriff's deputy's wife by a 4-year-old boy, accidental firearms deaths are rare among children.

According to the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 703 children under the age of 15 died in accidental firearms deaths between 2001 and 2010, the latest year for which the agency's statistics on fatalities are available. During the same period, 7,766 children under the age of 14 suffered accidental firearms injuries -- about one injury for every million children.

But statistics don't matter much if it's your child that's shot, said Missy Carson Smith, founder of Gun Safe Mom, a campaign to make the gun question as common as asking about food allergies, swimming pools and video game limits.

"It just shreds your family," said Smith, whose own teenage brother died in a shooting. She started the campaign in 2009, after learning during a carpool trip that unsecured guns were in the home of a family where her daughter had played.

"The kids knew where they were, they could get to it," she said. "That's when my heart just dropped in my stomach."

She resolved to ask the family about their guns, but first she had some housekeeping of her own to do. Her family had an unsecured gun, owned by her husband. After getting it out of the house, she reached out to the other family to ask about the weapons there.

"They didn't realize that the way guns were stored in their home posed a threat to other people," she said. "It was a good conversation."

Since then, she has reached out to friends and leaders in her Traverse City, Michigan, community to press her cause and encourage parents to routinely ask the question. She's had the conversation with friends of her children probably 50 times, she says.

It's not about gun rights, she stresses. In fact, she counsels parents to make a point of saying they understand and accept the rights of gun owners to have firearms -- even loaded, unlocked weapons.

The point, she says, is to make sure you're comfortable with the environment where you're sending your kids.

CNN Facebook commenter Kathe Valeri said she only allows her children to go on playdates with children of families she knows well.

"We pick our friends and our social circle very carefully. If I don't know the parent well enough, then my kids don't play. That's it," she said. "Being that they are trustworthy friends, I have no problems worrying about if my children will be safe in their homes."

Gun owner's reaction

Gun owner Timothy Turner said he asks if guns are in his kids' friends' homes and how they're secured. If they keep a loaded gun, he specifically requests that they remove the ammo and keep it in a separate place when his daughters visit.

He's not worried about his daughters finding them "because they know what to do if they find a gun," Turner said on CNN's Facebook page. He's worried about others who don't know how to handle a gun.

If they don't agree to keep them locked up or are unable to keep the ammo and gun separate, "my daughters don't go," he said.

In turn, he makes sure to inform every parent whose child is visiting that he keeps a gun in the home. He said he keeps one gun in his home "for protection," locked in a fingerprint-scan safe. He has more, but he keeps them in vaults off his property at a location that only a few trusted people know about.

As for Daggett, she said her friends responded well to the gun question the first time she asked it. The avid hunters assured her that all of their weapons were locked up in a gun safe.

She's gotten better at asking the question since. It's part of her standard rundown now, anytime she ponders allowing her kids to visit another family's home.

With a curious 4-year-old daughter she calls "the raccoon" and a 13-year-old son -- the age of so many school shooters and victims -- she feels like she doesn't have much choice.

"I could so easily see my son or one of his friends picking up a pistol and saying, 'This is so cool!' " Daggett said.

Starting the conversation

Here are some tips from Knox and Smith about having the gun conversation with other parents:

-- Start by having a family policy on firearms safety that you're already following, Smith said. "If you're not thinking about it ahead of time, you don't really know what you like or don't like," she said.

-- Don't make gun safety a bigger deal than, say, pool safety or food allergies, but do make sure to clearly cover it, Knox said. "Blend it in with other topics," she suggests. "It's important to not make this too heavy or a subject that shouldn't be talked about."

-- Don't make judgments. "It's not just what you say and the content of your question, but the manner you express your question," Smith said.

-- Don't worry about offending other parents, Knox says. She said the group's field work shows gun owners are rarely offended by the question, but concern about opening up a rift between families keeps some parents from talking about the issue. "It's a barrier of anticipation," she says.

-- Have the conversation when kids aren't around, Smith suggests. She recounted the experience of a friend who brought up the issue when her son's young friends were around. Their mother froze -- she hadn't told the children that a gun was in the home. It turns out the weapons were secured, Smith said. "But she didn't want the kids to know they were there." Whether you agree with that or not, respect the other family's values, Smith said.

Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report.

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