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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gun Control and Playdates

Having The Talk

If I invited your child over to play at my house, you’d get an email that read, “My son would love to have your child over for a playdate! We have no pets, no one in the house smokes, and we don’t own any guns.”

I’ve mentioned those three things for years, ever since my son, who’s now in third grade, started kindergarten and started making friends on his own. I’ve never asked other parents if they keep guns in their home before allowing my kids to go over for parties or playdates - until now. 

Other moms that I know are thinking the same way, but many of us have this anxiety that we’re going to offend gun owners and end up with ostracized children. Some  let me quote them here if I changed their names.

“How in the world do you even ask someone this before your kid goes over for a party or the like?” said my friend Katie. “Maybe we need to add a line under the RSVP like ‘gun free home.’”

Isn’t it weirder to worry about awkward conversations than our child’s safety?

Would other parents get offended if I asked if they owned guns? What if I declined to send my son to their home because they had a gun? I asked my friend Sarah. She shared publicly that her 12 year old son passed his gun safety test.

“I have never had anyone ask me about it and I have never asked anyone,” Sarah replied. “I wouldn't have a problem if a parent asked me, though. It wouldn't bother me if they wouldn't let their child over, either. I am not a gun fan myself. All ours are locked up.”

“Would you ever ask your husband to remove the guns from your home?” I asked. 

“I don't think I would ever ask him to take the guns that he has for hunting out of the house, because I am comfortable with the way he has handled them and the way they are stored,” said Sarah. 

“Something would really have to happen for me to change my mind,” To me, that something has already happened. It happened in Columbine, Paducah, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown. 

My friend Katie sent me a link to a story about a four year-old boy visiting someone’s house. The child found a gun in the house and killed his own father. You can read about the two year old who shot himself in the head when he found his parents’ gun. Read about the five year old who used the gun he was given as a birthday present to kill his younger sister.  And these aren't the rare incidents. This is becoming a public health issue.

When my son started kindergarten, I learned just how many kids hunt with their parents and how many families in our neighborhood own guns. My son came home knowing the names of guns that I had never heard of, and had to look up on the internet to see if they were real or from video games. 

“I don’t even buy water guns for my children,” I told his kindergarten teacher.

Water Guns: Fun or Fail?

“There’s no evidence it leads to violent behavior,” she said, twenty years of parenting and teaching under her belt. “But I do recommend one thing. If you buy your boys water guns, get one for yourself. It’s no fun if you can’t shoot back.”

Shoot a gun at my own children? Even a water gun?

Let me be honest: I grew up playing laser tag in my back yard with my brother. I shot him with water guns more times than he shot me, I’m pretty sure. My dad brought us toy crossbows back from a trip to Germany and I remember hours of target practice fun. We played Duck Hunt on Nintendo when I was young, and I played HALO with my husband, late into the night, as an adult. I've played with toy guns my whole life and never once wanted to use a real one. But our community here is different than where I grew up. 

I had talked with friends, moms and teachers about guns. I decided I needed to have ‘the talk’ with my boys. 

I asked, “What would you do if you were at a friend’s house and saw a gun?” 

“Run away and don’t touch it!” my five year-old shouted. (But he shouts everything, even "I love you!' and especially 'Good Morning!")

“I would try to throw it out the window,” my eight year-old son answered.

“Actually, that’s the wrong thing to do,” I said and deflated his sense of heroism. “You must never, ever touch a gun. That’s a new rule and you must never break it. Ever. Promise me.” And they did promise. But will they remember that promise?

I didn’t tell them that I have touched a real gun, more than once. I’ve loaded live ammo into the chamber and pulled the trigger. And when my shots got more and more accurate, I loaded it faster and actually enjoyed myself. 

Pistols and Pink

The Millvale Sportsman Club here in Pittsburgh, PA offers Pistols and Pink, a unique event only for women who want to know more about guns and shooting sports.
Kathleen Kuznicki, a lawyer and one of the co-creators of Pistols and Pink told me about this event last year and I dismissed it as frivolous and vaguely sexist. Her concept was to invite local women she met at networking events to shoot pistols at a target range and then support women-owned businesses by buying cosmetics or jewelry. I thought it was disingenuous. Guns are not snazzy accessories.

But Kathleen is adamant that there are women out there who need this event. 

“When I tell women that I shoot I hear these types of responses: ‘I have only ever shot with (insert male relation)’ or  ‘We have guns in house, I have never shot a gun, but I feel I should learn how to use them’ or ‘I never wanted guns in house before, but now I am thinking it might be a good idea for home safety, and I want to learn how to use a gun,’” said Kathleen. My friend Sarah is clearly one of the women Kathleen hoped to reach.

“I never grew up with guns so I don't really care for them,” Sarah told me. “But I have grown comfortable with them simply over the way my husband Rick is with them and with the kids. He grew up with them in his house, and was trained to handle them properly. He is passing that on to the boys.”

But Sarah did draw the line at keeping an assault rifle in the house.

“Rick owns one of those assault rifle things. Not even sure what it is called. I am NOT comfortable with that, and didn't want it in the house or near my kids,” said Sarah. “The boys were not allowed to touch it or fire it. Rick agreed, and it is stored at his brothers’ house.”

After Newtown happened, I knew I needed to do something, be a part of some movement that was actively moving in the right direction to reduce the risks of gun violence. I decided I would go to a Pistols and Pink event to see if there was anything, even the smallest thing, that might change my mind about gun ownership.

Kathleen trained four of us the night I went, all mothers. The clubhouse bore the usual trappings of the hunter lifestyle, stuffed animals (not the kind we win at carnivals) and an empty bar waiting patiently for regulars to slide elbows and backsides into familiar grooves. Wood panelling, the hint of tobacco and no pink anywhere. 

We learned how to load bullets in the magazine and how to hold the gun correctly - right index finger along the barrel, left hand wrapped around the handle, high and tight. 

“No tea-cupping!” Kathleen told us. Tea-cupping, or holding the handle of the gun in the palm of your left hand, is a violation.

“Always hold the gun down range. When you lay it flat release the magazine. Check the safety,” She pointed the small switch out to us. “But your best and biggest safety is between your ears.” 
Squeeze, don't pull. 

She tapped her forehead and chuckled. We chuckled, too. Yes, we’re all too smart to shoot ourselves. 

Moments later, Anita, one of the other attendees, misfired while practicing with a real gun and dummy ammo. Curious about why it went wrong, she pointed the gun right into her own face.

Anita was definitely shaken after Kathleen’s intense chastisement. But she was still allowed to come down to the range with us, and use live ammo.

Down at the range, I wore ear plugs and earmuff headphones. Each shot made me jump, even my own. I tried not to stare at the targets that showed a white man holding a knife to a woman’s throat. 

My target was a black circle with neon orange concentric rings. I fired several rounds at first only hitting the outer edges. When I figured out to adjust my sights, my accuracy improved. The competitor in me couldn’t resist enjoying the experience. 

After my visit to the firing range, our local business paper did a story and video on Pistols and Pink. The article described the event as an opportunity for women’s business networking. 

“I don’t think women should be scared of guns,” Kathleen said toward the end of her online video. “But they should appreciate the danger of them especially if they are in their house.” 

The biggest danger to kids from guns is the ones in their own homes.

According to a study published in Pediatrics there are 1.7 million children under age 18 with loaded and unsecured guns in their homes. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention nearly 40 percent of gun-owning households with children have an unlocked gun. The biggest danger to kids from guns is the ones in their own homes. And I'm not ready to let my children play hide and seek in one of those homes. 

Despite my visit to Pistols and Pink, my opinions about guns hadn’t changed. I needed one more conversation with Kathleen. We agreed to meet for breakfast and we both knew we’d be discussing gun safety. Before our meeting I called Moms Demand Action, and spoke with Ginger.

“I’m just a mom, too, not a gun violence expert,” began Ginger. “What Newtown did for me is woke me up to the fact that there is no place in American that anyone is guaranteed safety from gun violence.”

I asked how I could get Kathleen to understand that guns in the home are deadly.

“Maybe you can get her to look at the issue in a different way,” suggested Ginger. “But don’t get too confrontational or she won’t even talk to you anymore. People get so emotional, anytime people counter an opinion or value with facts or studies, it’s not met with an open mind.”

Even as Ginger and I talked about gun control, we used phrases evoking guns and shooting. 

“You’ll need to be armed with a couple of nuggets,” she said and we both cringed. 

I mentioned ‘putting things in my arsenal’ and how her words were ‘triggering thoughts.’

“It’s all very violent, isn’t it?” I said.

Ginger advised that Kathleen and I focus on what we believe in common.

“Does she have opinions about background checks on mental illness and on felons? The majority of members want expanded background checks. They don’t want crazy people getting guns and mowing down school yards of children. Identify your common ground,” Ginger suggested. 

But the night before my conversation with Kathleen, I felt pretty hypocritical as my children ran the around our backyard firing the new water guns my middle child received at his sixth birthday party. 

As we sipped our coffee the morning of our meeting, Kathleen began by telling me that Pistols and Pink was a source of conflict with other club members.

“Club members weren’t following the rules by signing in and paying their fees and then they’d get upset when our scheduled education classes were taking up gun range spots,” Kathleen said. “And other times club members wanted to shoot at targets even though education class members were down range. They just don’t want to follow the rules!” 

We agreed that following the rules was important when it comes to gun ownership. Agreement! I forged ahead and asked if she thought some people shouldn’t be allowed to have guns. Kathleen replied firmly that everyone has a right to a gun, but not everyone deserves or should have a gun. 

“It’s a Constitutional right,” she said. Disagreement. I wanted to say that the Constitutional argument never holds water with me, because the Constitution has been wrong and been changed many times before. Instead, I asked how she felt about licensing gun ownership and home inspections. 
“I don’t want someone coming into my home and licensing my ability to own a gun or tell me if I’m storing it correctly.”

 We license people to drive cars. And we take away licenses when they can’t follow the rules. I wouldn’t want someone to license my ability to have children. Our country already tried that during the eugenics movement of the 1930s. Was this similar? I wondered. Where do we draw the line on what we license? 

I asked Kathleen how I could keep my kids safe from guns that might be in other people’s homes.

“Education, education, education,” she replied.

But we both acknowledged that even highly-educated people like ourselves break the rules. We drive our cars faster than the speed limit. And Kathleen did say when she got home she’d finally tell her boyfriend to get his guns off the floor of his man cave, where they were just laying around, and secure them. Because even though she and her boyfriend are responsible gun owners even they hadn’t been following the rules of gun safety. 

I came away not with some solution to gun control, but the knowledge that gun owners don't always lock up their guns. So after my talk with Kathleen, I decided I just couldn't allow my children to be in a home with a gun. I would rather risk their social standing, and whether other parents 'liked' me or not, than their safety. 

One summer afternoon not long after that breakfast, I dropped my older boys off at a friend’s house and hadn’t had the chance to ask in advance if they had guns in the home. I was nervous. What would I do if the hosting dad said yes? Would I take my kids home? Would I ask to see where the guns were secured? 

My boys hopped out of the car and ran inside the house screaming with delight to see their friends. Standing on the front porch I took a deep breath and said, “This may seem out of the blue, but can I ask if you have guns in your home?”
“No, we don’t,” answered the dad. “I had a gun but got rid of it. Good idea to ask. You can never be too safe.” 

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