The next time your child heads over to a friend's house, a Durham County gun safety group wants you to ask these questions: Are there guns in the house? If so, are they stored properly?
It's a tough topic to broach for a lot of people out there, but it's one, said Joanie Ross, a public health education specialist in Durham County, that could save lives.
“It is extremely important to ask friends, neighbors and relatives, or wherever your children may play or visit, if there are guns nearby,” Ross said. “If the answer is yes, find out how the guns are stored. If the guns are not stored properly, the location is a dangerous place for your child to play. Guns should be unloaded with the gun locked up and the ammunition stored separately. Asking one simple question could save your child’s life.”
Ross is part of Durham County's gun safety team, which is coordinated by staff at the Durham County Department of Public Health. The group, which includes gun owners, community representatives, law enforcement officers, medical professionals and church representatives, has given away more than 10,000 gunlocks since 1999 and has worked to reduce the number of gun injuries.
Spurred by the accidental shooting death of a nine-year-old Durham boy by his brother in April and others around the region and country, the group will hold an event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday, at the Durham County Human Services Building, 414 E. Main St., Durham. Free gunlocks will be available, along with information about gun safety and protecting children from injury. They'll also be giving away 175 snow cones from Pelican's.
According to the North Carolina Violent Death Reporting System, 13 people died in 2011 where the shooter unintentionally pulled the trigger, seven of those 13 occurred while the victim was playing with a gun, according to a news release. Others happened when the shooter thought the gun was unloaded, the gun was mistaken for a toy, and while a gun was being cleaned. That year, 12 percent of violent deaths in children were from unintentional firearm incidents.
Ross points to another Durham case a couple of years ago when a four-year-old boy seriously injured himself after finding a loaded gun on top of the refrigerator at his home. His father was later arrested for violating a state law on the storage of firearms to protect minors.
"We have talked to kids of all ages and they know where the firearms are and they also know that parents think they don't know," Ross said. "They know exactly where they are. They know if it's in the closet, they know if it's under the bed, they know wherever."
The gun safety team reminds gun owners that the safest way to keep a gun is locked up in a safe with the ammunition locked up separately, Ross said. If there is no safe, gun owners can use a gunlock and should still store the ammunition locked away elsewhere.
"Hide the keys," Ross said. "Put them somewhere where a child cannot find them."
But Ross said everybody, not just gun owners, need to be talking about gun safety, proper gun storage and keeping our children safe. She understands that some parents might be reluctant to start the conversation about guns in the homes of their children's friends. But, she said, those questions are important to ask.
"You can ask about firearms as you ask about are they going to be swimming, making sure they fasten their seatbelts, maybe the child is allergic to something. but the most important thing you can talk about is a firearm because that is something that can take a life or injure a child for life," she said. " ... We say, 'share this with a friend.' We want it to be a comfortable dialogue between parents and have it be a natural thing to ask."
After all, if we all asked the question, it wouldn't be so tricky to ask.
"The more we talk about it, the easier it's going to be to talk about it," she said.
Parents also should talk to their kids about what to do if they see a gun. Ross said parents should advise their kids to stop, don't touch, run away and find an adult if they see a firearm.
"If someone ever told them that they had a firearm in their book sack at school, go tell your teacher or your principal even if you don't know for sure. If they find one under a bush, get away. At a friend's house and [the friend] want to look at one, get away," she said.
"It's really up to the parents to keep these firearms out of the child's arms totally," she said.
This isn't a law enforcement issue. It's a public health issue.
"With our teamwork and our whole motivation, it's not political, it's all about children's safety," she said. "That makes it a lot easier for us to get out into the community. It's a person's right to own a gun. It's nothing for us to judge. We just want our children to be safe and I think that's something that no one would argue with it."
"I think people are just tired of it and taking a stand on it," she added. "It's just so preventable."
For more information about the Durham County gun safety team, the ASK event on Monday, or how to obtain free gun safety locks, contact Ross at 919-560-7765 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.