When my daughter was 3, she saw her first toy gun on a playdate. It was neon green and shot balls instead of bullets, but it was the first time she had ever seen or heard anything that contained the word "gun" in its description.
"What does a real gun look like?" she asked when she returned from the playdate.
I realized then that it was time to educate her, as well as myself.
I went online and showed her pictures of all different types of guns. But I didn't stop there. I talked to her about what to do if she went to a house with a real gun—to stop, immediately leave the room, and find a grown-up. I used a stern voice, told her of the terrible things that could happen, and I did my best to answer all her questions openly and honestly.
But then she said something that I wasn't prepared to hear: "I don't want to play at a house that has guns." And the truth was, neither did I.
We are not gun owners. We are a family who understands the need for guns for hunting and armed forces, but we are not people who believe they should be kept in the home for recreation or protection. I have never understood how guns could even be used for protection if they're supposed to be kept locked up with the bullets in a separate location. If an intruder entered your home, how would you have time to unlock, assemble, load, etc.?
But a bigger question I wondered was why I had never asked a playdate's parent if they owned guns. Yes, I knew the people she was playing with; they were friends. But the truth was, I had no idea if they owned a gun. It's not a topic that had ever come up.
So the next time she went on a playdate, I asked the question that felt so uncomfortable coming out of my mouth, and I was surprised by their reaction. They smiled, said "no," and added, "That's a good question to ask. I never thought to ask someone that."
And that parent and I aren't the only ones who hadn't thought to ask before. I posted the question on Facebook and was surprised by how many mothers answered that they wished they asked if there was a gun but never did. Many were afraid of offending the other parent, or others didn't think of asking until after the fact. However, a few said they had asked and the reactions were mixed.
Jen Simon, a mother of two from New Jersey, said that she worked up the courage to ask when her son started attending a new school. "I didn't know the parents, and although they seemed nice enough, I felt strange about dropping my kid off at someone's house without knowing them. I asked if they had a gun in their house, and the father answered 'no.' It then led to a great conversation about how sad it was that we needed to ask."
But Alexandra Rosas, a mother of three from Wisconsin, has often experienced a different reaction. "Almost always, parents get offended when I ask. I live in a state with many hunters. But, I put my child's safety before a fear of how people think of me. If they don't lock their guns, my son doesn't go."
Some parents are even going as far as not partaking in at-home playdates. Julie Schwietert Collazo, a mother of three from New York City, slowly started eliminating playdates that take place in someone's house. "There are too many wild cards: guns, not knowing whether other adults are in the home, and the like. I don't consider myself a paranoid parent, but I'd rather eliminate any controllable dangers by being present and engaged and available for my child while she has a playdate. Instead, we invite our daughter's friends (and parents, if they so choose) to join us at museums, kids' centers, or similar spots to play."
After recent youth shootings, access to weapons in homes is a growing concern. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, more than 40 percent of households with guns and children store their weapons unlocked.
With that information in mind, how can I truly believe someone if they tell me they properly store their guns? Not only am I a skeptic and cynical human being, but I'm also a mother who is terrified of a gun going off and injuring, or worse, killing an innocent child, especially mine.
After I showed my daughter the pictures of real guns, she asked, "How will I know what is a play gun and what is a real gun?" I wondered the same. Toys today look so real. How would she tell the difference?
In that same Brady report, parents who said that their kids had never handled their guns at home were given quite a surprise when they found out 22 percent of their children, who were questioned separately from their parents, said that they had handled their parents' guns without their knowledge.
Who's to say that one of those children in that 22 percent isn't my child's new playdate?