"Do you have a gun in your home?"
It’s not an easy question to ask, and some parents may have difficulty bringing up the topic before a sleepover or play date, but it’s something every parent has a right to know — and the answer may save a child’s life.
Pennsylvania mom Kate Baer told TODAY Parents that gun violence is a topic she can't let go of. The best-selling author said the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is never far from her mind, but it's something she rarely discusses.
"One, because it can be triggering to my own anxiety spiral, and two, I was not there," Baer said, adding that she has no connection to what happened outside of the nation's collective horror. "And yet it haunts me."
Baer has had three children go to kindergarten since the 2012 elementary school shooting left 26 dead, including 20 children between ages 6 and 7.
"How can I separate them from what happened that day?" Baer said. "How am I supposed to trust they will be OK at school or at play dates or in the grocery store when there are still so few parameters in place to keep guns out of the wrong hands?"
Baer, a mom of four, told TODAY that Moms Demand Action, founded by Shannon Watts after Sandy Hook, has been a tremendous help for people like her who need something to do with their grief.
"One of the things they talk about is having conversations before play dates about if there are guns in the house, and if so, making sure they are stored safely," Baer said. "Yeah, it’s kind of awkward, but it’s also a pretty easy action step."
Parenting expert Jo Frost, formerly of the television series “Supernanny," agreed.
“Americans have a right to bear arms in the Second Amendment," Frost said, adding that the issue is not a debate over personal views on gun ownership. "And parents have a right to ask questions.”
How to ask about guns in the house
We’ve all heard stories about gun accidents in the home, and we want our children to be safe. So what’s the best way to broach the subject?
Frost recommends that parents be straightforward and honest.
For example, they could say, “I just want to ask if you if have guns; I’d just like to know the answer to that question.”
If the answer is yes, a good follow-up question might be: “Is the gun safely locked away?” It’s then ultimately up to a parent to decide what to do with that information — and whether to allow their child to visit that friend’s home.
Recently, Baer shared a screenshot on Instagram that showed a text exchange with another parent about having guns in the home.
"Quick question, I know this is awkward, do you have any guns in your home? If so, how are they stored? Thank you," she wrote alongside a heart emoji.
The fellow parent replied they had hunting firearms in the home, and they were kept in locked cases.
"I shared the screenshot in the hopes that it would inspire others to have similar conversations and to show an example of a script to follow," Baer said. "Sometimes it’s really helpful to have the language."
How do you talk to your kids about guns?
Baer said she is frank with her children when discussing guns, emphasizing that guns are weapons that can result in death or serious injury.
"If a friend is joking around about getting a gun from their parents or showing them a gun or handling one, tell us right away," she said. "We also have hunters on both sides of our families, so we also talk about the nuance of adults handling guns as well."
Salli Garrigan was a high school junior on April 20, 1999 when she heard gun shots in her choir class at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
“At 16 years old I heard gunfire that would change my life,” Garrigan told TODAY Parents. “I ran through the auditorium to the front doors where glass shattered a few feet in front of me. That’s when I hid behind a column with a friend and a teacher waved us on a path to safety.”
Garrigan survived the Columbine mass shooting that left 12 fellow students and one teacher dead. The mom of two said the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida prompted her to take action.
“Everything that happened there was so eerily similar and it was so weird to see it happen two decades later,” Garrigan said of the tragedy that killed 17. “The kids in Parkland spoke out. Most of us at Columbine, we left it to the adults. We thought the adults would fix it and we were wrong.”
"It’s OK to ask if there are guns in the house and if they are safely stored — to normalize that," Garrigan said. "I don't want my kids living in a bubble, but I also want them to know it’s probably out there and should be addressed."
Baer told TODAY that mothers have had to push aside anxieties since the beginning of this pandemic, "asking all sorts of terrible questions of ourselves and others."
"Why stop now?" she said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed an array of cracks in our infrastructures. "Why not let (all of this) lead to positive change? Let’s ask about maternal health, paid leave, and how we can support caregivers during events like global pandemics. Let’s question our health care system and our education system. Let’s question how we sell guns and to who. Let’s ask how those guns are stored and who has access to them."
For Garrigan, the importance lies in normalizing conversation around guns and gun violence.
"Whether you’re a gun owner or advocate, we need to come together and have a conversation about how to be safe and help our children," she said. "We have to be proactive."