Saturday, July 2, 2005

When Carole Price’s son John went to play at a friend’s house, Mrs. Price asked a few questions, such as, “Will a parent be home?” and “What kind of video games will the children be playing?”

One thing she never asked: “Do you have a gun in the house?”

On an August afternoon in 1998, John, then 12, was at an acquaintance’s house where a gun was kept loaded and unsecured. John died that day of a single, accidental gunshot wound.

“We didn’t own a gun, so I never asked,” says Mrs. Price, who lives in Manchester, Md. “I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable about it — it is a hot topic, and there are always such strong feelings on it one way or another. But it is a question you almost have to ask. It may be uncomfortable, but it is a lot more uncomfortable picking out a casket for your child.”

It is a question that should be asked because about 40 percent of U.S. households with children also have guns, according to estimates from public safety groups. Among the 11 million homes with guns and children, the guns in 13 percent are kept loaded and unlocked, according to a 2001 estimate by the Rand Corp. research group.

Daniel Gross, chief executive of Pax, a New York nonprofit educational organization aimed at curbing gun violence, says most gun owners say they wouldn’t mind being asked if there are guns in the house. Mr. Gross’ organization promotes ASK (Asking Saves Kids), which urges parents to ask about guns.

Mr. Gross says asking does not have to turn into a political question; it simply should be framed in the context of children’s safety.

“You would ask if your child would wear a seat belt in the car or if the parent has a fence around their pool,” Mr. Gross says. “Don’t single out guns or say something like, ‘Guns are evil.’ Just say to the other parent, ‘There are a few questions I always ask … ‘”

If the answer is “yes,” there are a few ways to proceed, Mr. Gross says. The next question is to ask how the guns are stored. Are they locked in a safe? Are they loaded? Merely hiding guns isn’t enough, he says. “Kids are naturally curious.”

If you are not satisfied with the answers, the next step is to invite the children to play at your house instead.

Shirley Lochowitz was a Wisconsin police officer a decade ago. She always kept her 9 mm service weapon unloaded and locked in a closet. Still, her son, Nicholas, then 12, accidentally was shot in the stomach while visiting the home of a friend of a friend. The children were playing with a .22-caliber rifle the boy was allowed to keep in his room, Mrs. Lochowitz says.

Nicholas’ mother was the first officer on the scene. He survived but has myriad health problems as a result of his injuries. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lochowitz has founded the Other End of the Barrel, a nonprofit group that educates people about safe gun storage.

“Before my son was shot, I never asked others if there were guns in the house,” Mrs. Lochowitz says. “And I never was asked. It is such a volatile subject. People who have guns are very protective. People don’t feel comfortable asking — it is too much an invasion of privacy.

“But I share our story to let people know that accidents can happen in any family — not just in a ‘bad’ neighborhood.”

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