I am a mother.
I am a former elementary school teacher.
I married into a family of sportsmen.
I am the parent of a child with special needs.
I am the sister of a boy shot in a school-related shooting by an emotionally disturbed classmate 27 years ago.
I am a parent who found out her child was in an unfamiliar home with an unlocked firearm.
I should know better, and I am devastated.
I have thought about my brother’s homicide every day of my life since it happened when I was a young girl. 9,824 days at the time of this post, to be exact. My brother lost his life at the home of a boy in a wealthy suburban Detroit neighborhood. There are many memories seared into my mind about the entire tragedy, but the single most memorable image is of the bullet hole behind his ear as he lay there in his pink polo shirt, navy blue sport coat, and glasses over his closed eyes in his casket. If he were alive today, he would have celebrated his 40th birthday this coming June.
Years later, as a parent of four beautiful girls, I knew the day was coming where my children would go to the home of someone I did not know that well to play. Like any parent, it made me nervous. But I also knew I had girls. Girls don’t play with guns. Girls don’t like guns. I felt safe knowing this treasured quality of little girls. When I found out haphazardly, weeks after my eldest daughter’s first kindergarten play date, that there was at least one unlocked gun in the home of her playmate, I felt sick to my stomach. I did it – I let my child go to a home with an unlocked gun. I compromised my own child’s safety and allowed her into that same situation as my brother. Why did I not ask the parents about guns in the household before agreeing to this play date? I truly knew better. Did I mention I live in Northern Michigan? People here have guns – it was not outside the realm of possibility that this situation could arise.
I knew part of the answer to that question was that I was being a coward about this conversation. This is a very difficult topic for parents to discuss with each other. We worry about offending people. We want others to think we trust them. We don’t think it could happen in our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, thinking this way puts our own kids at risk of injury and death.
In my case, I wasn’t just uncomfortable having this conversation with our friends – I hadn’t even had “the talk” in my own home. I knew there was a hunting rifle of sorts and perhaps a BB gun hidden in the catacombs of our basement – even though they were seldom, if ever, used and certainly not loaded. The guns had been passed quietly from father to son years ago, and we never had a real conversation about it, out of sensitivity to my family’s tragedy. Even talking about gun safety with my fantastic husband – whom I love and trust completely – was not just uncomfortable, it was painful.
I’m apparently not the only person avoiding having the “Are any guns in your home safely stored?” conversation. With all the various types of encounters I have related to my daughter with special needs, it might seem likely that I would be asked to reveal the status of guns in my home. After hundreds of days in the hospital and countless interactions with medical personnel at many levels, I have never been asked about guns in my home. Many local medical and educational professionals came to my house for evaluation and therapy purposes. Never have one of them asked me if there were guns present in the household. I have attended 3 years of IEPs (Individualized Education Plans for children in special education) and guns have never part of the discussion.
The guns in our house were never used, unloaded, and dusty…but they were there and they were not in a safe. No one wanted to talk about it. Sadly, surprisingly, not even me. I had avoided the conversation in my own household, and I was nervous about the conversation I knew I needed to have with my daughter’s friend’s family.
If I were to face the family from the play date and share my concern, I had to take care of business at my own house first. I spoke with my husband for the first time about the guns in our home – after 10 years of marriage. Either we needed to invest in a large gun safe for the size of the hunting rifle, or the guns had to go, and I was firm.
The next step was to talk to the other family. After a conversation with the family my daughter visited, which was filled with tears and emotion, we found that we understood and respected each other. We did not have the same views on gun control, but we did agree that the way the guns in their home were being stored put children and the people in their home at risk. They recognized the devastation my family experienced as a result of kids accessing guns. The mother promised that things would be different next time my daughter came to play at their house. She confessed that the gun situation in their household had always bothered her a great deal. And she also gave me her blessing in my efforts to get mothers and parents talking to each other about gun accessibility and children. For that, I truly am very grateful.
It was their family who made me confront my issues with gun accessibility and children head on. They not only gave me the courage to confront this at home, but they sparked a new realization for me: I had to make this easier to talk about for parents everywhere.
It’s not a conversation about gun control – it’s a conversation about the way guns are stored and kept inaccessible to children. We can disagree on gun control but agree that we want to keep our children safe from independently accessing them.
For us to be able to start having these conversations, we have to make the conversation less scary – and that’s all about bringing it out in the open. For that reason, I founded a movement called, “Gun Safe Mom” and designed a simple image and safety sign that can serve as a reminder to keep revisiting this conversation. It’s all about unlocking the conversation around gun accessibility in our homes and erasing the stigma attached to discussing matters of gun safety and accessibility between parents, friends, and family members.
Gun Safe Mom is a call to action for mothers (who are still largely responsible for coordinating the social calendars of children), but this project is about PEOPLE, CONVERSATION, and CONNECTION. All parents want to protect their children yet maintain our own individual values systems, but we mothers are key agents in making this discussion happen so it becomes socially acceptable and expected in an attempt to protect our children.
Our tears, prayers, and grief following events like the recent Sandy Hook tragedy are significant and important, but it’s action that can save lives immediately without waiting for legislation, reform, or for someone else to “do something.”
My kids are the same ages as those precious angels slain at Sandy Hook Elementary. I not only see a haunting reflection of my brother Jeff in all of this, but I see the faces of my own children in the chilling electronic photo collages circulating of the victims. That moves me. I hope it calls to you, too. Be bold. Be clear. Be brave. Be a “Gun Safe Mom” and unlock the conversation today.
Missy Carson Smith is mom to Izzy, Sadie, Lucy and Bernie in Traverse City, Michigan. Missy is a member of our Patient and Family Advisory Committee and her daughter Bernie is a “Little Victor” from our Congenital Heart Center. You can learn more about the movement and business of Gun Safe Mom at www.GunSafeMom.com or on Facebook.
The opinions expressed in this post or any comment on this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the University of Michigan.
University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.