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'90s FAMILY

Why 'Hiding' Guns From Kids Just Won't Work

August 25, 1996|BILL GUTTENTAG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the United States today, there are more than 200 million guns, and in more than 40% of the homes with handguns and children, the guns are not locked up.

I am a parent of young children, and I recently completed a documentary film on children and handguns. The stories one hears researching and filming a project like this are heartbreaking, and unfortunately common. Anyone who looks into this world swiftly learns there's virtually no community in America that is unaffected by the senseless loss of children to handguns.

Most kids, and especially teenagers, are fascinated by guns. Why this should be is a question for someone else, but I do know this: Time after time, children have gone to any length to search a gun out. Parents who think they can hide a gun from their children are kidding themselves--consider how much success parents have in hiding a Christmas or birthday present.

As bleak as this sounds, in making the film, I learned that there are simple and effective measures parents can take to prevent children from becoming victims.

One of the most important things a parent can do: When sending a child off to a friend's house to play, ask the parents of your child's friend if there's a gun in the house. This is an act of tremendous empowerment.

If the answer comes back that, yes, there is a gun, you have important information at your disposal--and the duty to deal with it responsibly.

Last month, when I posed this question to the father of a friend of my son and learned there was a handgun in the home, I expressed my concern and asked the parents how their gun was kept. The girl's father told me of a number of precautions he took in keeping the gun locked up. He assured me the gun was inaccessible to the children. Based on his explanation of his safety precautions, I made the call to allow my son to go and play at his house.

Other times, the answers to questions of how guns are kept should give a parent pause. In making our film, we heard many stories from parents grieving the loss of a child killed in gunplay who said they were completely unaware their child was in a place of danger when they played at a neighbor's home.

My filmmaking partner recently asked the gun question of the father of a boy with whom his son was going to have a play date; he was told there was a gun in the house, but it was in the parents' bedroom and the kids were not allowed in there. This is a classic formula for disaster. My partner told his son that if the boys wanted to play together, they could do it at his home.

Other significant measures parents can take to protect their children include putting trigger locks on all guns.

Also, it is important to have a talk with your children about what to do should they find themselves in a house with an unlocked gun and no parents supervising. If one of the children reaches for the gun to play with it, your children should know exactly what you believe they should do in this terrifying situation. Their lives may depend on it.

The divisions in our country on gun issues are profound, but it is our responsibility to ensure that our children reach adulthood in safety. One way to do this is to ask the parents of your children's friends if there is a gun in the house. If you fail to ask you are letting the parents in the house where your child plays control your child's destiny. It's a risk not worth taking.

* Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Guttentag, with partner Vince DiPersio, created the Emmy-nominated documentary "5 American Handguns--5 American Kids," which premiered on HBO in 1995.

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