I almost choked on my urge to say, "Don't you know who I am?" In certain odd corners at least, my last name, Berrigan, is still synonymous with muscular pacifism and principled opposition to violence and weaponry of just about any kind, right up to the nuclear kind. But that dad probably didn't even know my last name and it probably wouldn't have meant a thing to him if he had. He just wanted to make sure his son was going to be safe and I was grateful that he asked -- rather than just assuming, based on our Volvo-driving, thrift-shop-dressing, bumper-sticker-sporting lifestyle, that we didn't.
"You know how kids are," he said after I assured him that we were a gun-free household. "They'll be into everything."
And right he is. Kids are "into everything," which is undoubtedly why so many of them end up with guns in their hands or bullets in their bodies.
"Do you question everyone about their guns?" I asked the dad. He replied that he did and, if they answered yes, then he'd ask whether those weapons were locked away, whether the ammunition was stored separately, and so on.
"Thank you so much. I think we need to start doing that too," I said as our conversation was ending and indeed I have ever since.
It's a subject worth raising, however awkward the conversation that follows may be, because two million kids in this country live in homes where guns are not stored safely and securely. So far this year, 59 kids have been hurt in gun accidents of one sort or another. On average, every 34 hours in our great nation a child is involved in an unintentional shooting incident, often with tragic consequences.
The National Rifle Association's classic old argument, "guns don't kill people, people kill people," takes on a far harsher edge when you're talking about a seven-year-old accidentally killing his nine-year-old brother with a gun they found while playing in an empty neighboring house in Arboles, Colorado.
Two weeks after we learn this new parenting life skill in this oh-so-new century of ours, my husband Patrick is on the phone with a mom arranging a sleepover for Rosena. I hear him fumble his way through the gun question. From his responses, I assume the mom is acknowledging that they do have guns. Then there's the sort of long, awkward silence that seems part and parcel of such conversations before Patrick finally says, "Well, okay, thanks for being so honest. I appreciate that."
He hangs up and looks at me. "They do keep guns for hunting and protection, but they're locked up and out of sight," he tells me. "The mom says that the kids have never tried to get at the guns, but she understands the dangers." (He had heard in her voice apology, embarrassment, and worry that the guns might mean no sleepover.)
I grimaced in a way that said: I don't think Rosena should go and he responded that he thought she should. The two of them then had a long conversation about what she should do and say if she sees a gun. She slept over and had a great time. A lesson in navigating difference, trusting our kid, and phew" no guns made an appearance. And we know more about our neighbors and our community.
Anything Can Be a Gun
My son Seamus, five, received an Easter basket from a family friend. He was happy about the candy of course and immediately smitten with the stuffed bunny, but he was over the moon about what he called his new "carrot gun." It wasn't a toy gun at all, but a little basket that popped out a light ball when you pressed a button.
The idea was that you'd catch the ball, put it back in, and do it again. But that wasn't the game my kids played. They promptly began popping it at each other. His little sister Madeline, four, was in tattle mode almost immediately. "Mom, Seamus is shooting me with his carrot gun!"
"Mom, mom, mom," he responded quickly, "it's a pretend play gun, not a real play gun. It's okay." He made popping noises with his mouth and held his hand as if he were grasping a genuine forbidden toy gun. It was an important distinction for him. He'd been a full-throated participant in the March for Our Lives in Boston on March 24th, chanting with the rest of us "What do we want? Gun Control! When do we want it? NOW!" for four hours straight.
At the march, he pointed out that all the police officers managing traffic and the flow of people were wearing guns on their belts.
"I see a gun, Mom," he kept saying, or "That police officer has a gun, Mom."