Tuesday, June 8, 2004

A simple question to protect kids


Sunburn, skateboard accidents and the West Nile virus are summer concerns parents are willing to admit into their consciousness. But the thought of their child coming in contact with a gun is a danger few parents talk about or even allow themselves to consider.

Still, guns are an increasingly common part of American life; experts point out that 40 percent of homes with children have one. For that reason, parents should consider an approach called Asking Saves Kids (ASK) to help protect their child.

Developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Pax, a non-profit agency dedicated to ending gun violence, ASK encourages parents to find out if friends and relatives have a gun in the house before sending their children over to play.

It is a simple and straightforward approach that only seems shocking when a parent actually picks up the telephone to do it. Butt into a neighbor's life with such an intrusive question? The matter seems unlikely, if not impossible, until parents consider that 3,500 young people are killed by gun violence every year.

Although parents may take pains to hide weapons, children have an uncanny ability to find them. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study of students in grades 6-12 showed that 60 percent of students said they could get a firearm if they wanted one. And guns hold a terrible and irresistible fascination for children. Studies have shown that even after being warned never to touch a gun by parents and police officers, children still are overwhelmingly likely to handle them.

Engaging other parents in conversations about access to guns in the home is worth the awkwardness. Some parents are initially offended, but ASK's sponsors say ruffled feelings generally give way to honest responses, and lead those parents to begin asking the question of other families. Interestingly, the parents most reluctant to ask the question are generally not gun owners. The people least likely to be offended by being asked generally are gun owners.

Once parents know there is a weapon in the playmate's house, it's time for a judgment call. If they're assured the gun is safely stored, they may go ahead with the visit. If not, they may decline or suggest other options. Either way, the power to decide is an important tool for any parent.

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