Kids and Gun Safety

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An interview with Dr. Denise Dowd

Like fellow mamas of my generation, I have surrendered to the wisdom of the five-point harness, the life jacket and the bike helmet. Dutifully, I slathered on sunblock, sealed off outlets and barred access to cleaning supplies and pill bottles. But now that my son is 4.5, I’m getting to the point where I need to employ new vocabulary and careful thought to protect him from the dangers of play in places I can’t fully control. One of my greatest questions is about the fact that some parents have guns in their homes; I asked Dr. Denise Dowd, an emergency pediatric physician in Kansas City, for advice on talking to other parents about that possibility. — Alejandra Nathan, TMC Contributor

How do I tactfully ask my child’s friends’ parents whether they have guns in their home?

It’s really not that tough to do it. We encourage parents do it. It’s really important to ask. One of the things you can say is, “Listen, Bobby’s coming over and I’m a really nervous person. I worry about things. I’ve just got to ask…” You blame yourself.

Secondly, you can blame it on your kid. “Bobby is so curious. He gets into everything. I’ve got to make sure the environment is safe for him…” If you’re asking from a place of caring and empathy and love for your child and people get offended, it’s okay. The safety of your child is far more important than worrying if you’ve offended someone.

Another way is you can lead with facts. It’s almost ubiquitous. Almost half the homes with kids have a gun. You could say, “I just read a statistic that there’s a gun in the house of 40 percent of all kids. So that means so many people I know must have them.” Or you could say, “I read in the paper about a case where a kid got his hands on a gun.” We’re all so careful about how our kids are buckled up in the car. Guns are so prevalent.

If the answer is “yes,” what are the best follow-up questions?

If they say they do have a gun in the home, ask them how it is stored. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends Safe Storage. That means the weapon has to be unloaded, locked, with the ammunition stored separately from the gun–using a gun safe or trigger lock. We’ve had several cases here since [the elementary school shooting in] Newtown of kids getting a hold of guns that maybe a boyfriend or a grandparent or a friend’s parent left accessible.

They’re carrying it and they set it down on an ottoman or leave it on a table. Most of the time the owner knows it’s there. But sometimes the owner and the parent are different people. So the owner not might be fully aware that it is accessible. If one of those kids gets hurt—who cares if somebody gets offended by a concerned parent’s questions?

If you don’t like the answer they give, if you have a gut feeling of danger, you can say, “I’m not comfortable letting Bobby come over to your house. Maybe your kid can come over to our house?” Respectfully offer another solution.

Are young kids capable of understanding they should not touch guns?

The fact is little kids can shoot handguns. Four-year-olds are more able to shoot a handgun than to tie their own shoes. Gun advocates and the NRA will say all you need to do is teach a kid not to touch a gun and to tell an adult if they see one. You can teach little kids things and they can spout it back at you: “I know to look both ways before crossing the street.”

But developmentally, they’re not capable of applying what they learned consistently at the time of risk. Any parent knows this in their gut. You teach your kid to cross the street. But imagine a group of kids are playing soccer in a park near a busy street. Do you really trust your kid not to run into the street if the ball rolls into the street? Curiosity and impulsiveness often trump cognitive learning in young children, that’s their level of development.

Adults are responsible for keeping little kids safe. Once the trigger is pulled the likelihood of someone dying is high, whereas the likelihood of someone dying after falling from playground equipment is very low; you might break a leg or get a concussion. With other high risk activities, like water safety, we talk about setting up layers of protection.

When something is as fatal as a gunshot or drowning, you build in several layers of protection. You put a fence around the pool, a gate with a lock. With guns, you use a trigger lock. You unload the bullets. Another layer: you supervise your child, you teach your kid to swim, you get lessons. You tell your kids if you see a gun don’t touch it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lock the gun up. Another layer: people should know how to call 9-1-1 and do CPR.

What if other families in my community let their children play violent video games or watch TV or movies that feature violence? Should I set limits for my child at the home of a friend whose parents have different rules than we do?

You should put limits on your kid. There’s a ton of research that shows that violent video games and TV shows cause increased aggression in kids. It’s a spectrum: Some games are very violent, in others, the violence is subtle. If there’s a portrayal of people being injured or killed and they just get up again you have to understand what your kid understands is happening. Talk to your kid, find out what they know, what they believe. Keep it simple, just to find out how much they know about real world violence. There’s a difference between what a 5-year-old sees and what an adult thinks.

There are so many great alternatives to violent games and play, so why you would choose to direct your kid to violent games is beyond me. You’re talking about brain development: those neuropathways are still developing. Kids are growing and learning at a tremendous pace. They don’t understand the permanency of death, of pain and suffering. They may also be scared because they don’t know the difference between what is imaginary and what is real.

What about playtime? Is it healthy for my child to play cops-and-robbers or war games with toy guns? How do I square the developmental appropriateness of play violence with our family’s views on real violence?

Sometimes we can’t stop kids from naturally going and doing what they do. There’s a balance. If it becomes an obsession and they’re focused on killing and injuring or other violence then they should be diverted from that type of play. If they pick up a stick and go, “Bang-Bang” would I make a big deal about it? No.

It depends on the situation. You may, as a parent, need to say, “That’s not happening anymore. Period.”

There are so many other cool things to do. There are so many alternatives nowadays. Why would you want to play at violence? Why would you want anybody acting out, practicing violence? Play is the work of children. It is the way they learn about relationships with other people, about negotiations, about consequences, and about their own limits.

To model this play upon imitated violent acts isn’t the best thing to do for your child. If your family views violence as a normative thing, that’s a problem. You want your kids to understand there are peaceful ways to resolve conflict.

I don’t think for kids there’s necessarily violence around playing cops-and-robbers. It’s more role playing. They like to try it on. I don’t think kids naturally come to a place of violence. They imitate it if they see it and hear about it.

Ideally, many parents would prefer to be proactive on the topic of violence prevention, rather than addressing it in the wake of a terrorist attack or a school shooting. When is it optimal to discuss the issue of gun violence with my child? How should I break down the topic?

The biggest opportunity is when there is something happening in the news. Parents need to sit down with their kids and say, “Tell me what you know about this.” Ask them if they have any questions. Reassure them they are safe. You’ve got to do scaffolding. Build the platform of discussion on that which they understand. Little kids really and truly don’t want to know the stuff, that he had an AK-47, a big magazine, or a history of mental illness. My advice is to start where they are.

You know your kids. There are opportunities. They might be watching the news out of the corner of their eye or practicing drills in school. You can ask, “What do you know about that?”

Denise Dowd, MD, MPH, PEM practices pediatric emergency medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. She teaches pediatrics at Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and specializes in injury prevention.


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*this article was originally published in April 2013

Posted in: Expert Advice