The Christmas lights twinkled as 12-year-old Brian Crowell crunched down the steps of his family’s two-story gray colonial in Saugus, Massachusetts, and headed around the corner in the snow to his best friend’s house. It was late afternoon, still time for few games of Nintendo before dinner.
It had been a good day—his sister had taken him to the mall to do his Christmas shopping, where he’d scored a box of chocolate-covered cherries that his dad was going to love—and his whole extended family was coming over that night for their big annual Christmas Eve dinner. The kitchen was bursting with goodies his mom had been up all night baking, he’d remembered to do his chores (“The dishwasher’s already runnin’, Ma!” he reported proudly when he called her at work), and the brightly wrapped gifts under the tree brimmed with promise. A skateboard? A bike ramp? Could be anything.
But Brian never got to open his presents. A few weeks earlier, Brian’s best friend Matt had discovered that his mom kept a revolver under her mattress. When Brian took a break from their video games that afternoon to call home, Matt dug out the gun to show to his friend. Matt thought he was being careful, emptying out the bullets and placing them gently on the bedside table. But he didn’t realize he took out only five.
There were six.
Waiting for Brian to get off the phone, Matt absentmindedly cocked the hammer and pretended to fire. Click.
It was empty, harmless. So he did it again. Click.
One more time. Boom.
Brian felt the bullet hit his neck just as he hung up the phone, turned to see his stricken friend holding a revolver, and bolted from the room, stumbling down the steps. He collapsed on the living room floor.
The paramedics did their best—so did the surgeons, for two-and-a-half excruciating hours. But it wasn’t enough.
And Brian’s parents, who had walked into the hospital calmly rummaging for their insurance cards (thinking that the “accident” the police had obliquely mentioned on the phone was probably a broken arm from sledding), suddenly found themselves standing at their little boy’s hospital bedside, being told to say goodbye.
A few breaths later, Brian Crowell—the sweet-faced kid with big brown eyes who did cannonballs into the backyard swimming pool, the family comedian who always tried to make his mother laugh—was gone.
They picked out his casket on Christmas Day. Brian was buried a few days later.
“We had watched stories like this on the news and said, ‘Isn’t that a shame — oh, that poor family’… and then moved on, just like everybody else does,” says Ann Crowell, Brian’s mother. “But it can happen to you. It happened to us.”
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The stories of children killed in accidental shootings are enough to make any parent’s blood run cold. As the holidays approach and our families prepare to visit the homes of friends and relatives, it’s important to think about how to keep our kids safe. While the grown-ups are chatting over drinks and cookies in the kitchen, it might only take one game of hide-and-seek for the kids to find the gun in the host’s basement, or nightstand, or closet upstairs.
It’s tempting to blow this off because our family and friends are nice people who seem like they’d be responsible gun owners, or we think they don’t own guns at all. But nearly half of all American homes have guns in them, and Brian Crowell lived on a well-kept street in a nice part of town and was playing with a friend his family had known for years. Not one of those things protected him.
And talking to our kids about guns isn’t enough, either. True, “don’t touch, leave the room, tell an adult,” sounds like useful advice. So does, “assume any gun you see is loaded, even if the person holding it says it’s not.” But realistically, these admonitions just aren’t that effective. When researchers sent groups of kids (90 percent of whom had received gun safety instruction) to play in a room where a handgun had been hidden, three-quarters of the groups had at least one child who picked it up, and nearly half the groups had a kid who pulled the trigger. Their curiosity was just too much.
So we can’t just talk to the kids about guns. We have to talk to the adults.
Yeah, right, you say. I hate conflict. I can’t talk to my family or friends about politics or religion, and now you want me to talk to them about guns? Well, yes, actually. But there are plenty of ways to find out what we need to know — namely, whether or not there are guns in the home, and if so, how they are stored — without grabbing anyone by the lapels or causing World War III. Here are a few non-confrontational ideas:
Before traveling for a family visit…
Make it just another childproofing issue on your list.
“Hi Mom! So, Anna is crawling now, so we’ll bring our baby gate. Maddie is still allergic to peanuts, so I’ll bring separate snacks for her. And Ethan is quite the explorer these days, so if you could make sure Dad locks his gun in a safe, that would make me feel so much better. Could you do that? I’d be happy to purchase it if that would help! Thank you!”
Sandwich it between other questions and information in an email, and reference a child gun tragedy you read about.
“Hi Amy! We’ll be arriving late Wednesday and can’t wait to see everybody! I’ll bring the cookies like we talked about. The kids have been getting into everything these days, and I don’t know if you saw the story about the boy who unintentionally shot another child with an unsecured gun, but it really shook me. I don’t know if you own guns, but if you do, are they unloaded and locked up? Please also let me know what else I can bring for the meal. We can’t wait to see you guys! Love, Jen.” (adapted from a publication from BeSmartForKids.org)
Make it about peace of mind, not politics.
“I can hardly keep up with Connor now that he started climbing, and he’s into everything. Does Grandpa still have his rifle, and if so, how it is stored? I just don’t want us to all spend the holiday looking over our shoulders worried about the kids.”
“I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m such a worrier…” “I just can’t get this story I read out of my mind…” “My kids are just into everything…” “Thank you for understanding!”
And you may be able to gather the information you need without directly asking…
“Okay, friends, need some parenting advice here. Do you guys ask other parents or family members about guns in the home before your children visit?”
You don’t really need the answer (although it might be interesting), but the responses themselves (“No, I never ask, but our guns are always locked up,” or “Yes, I always ask, and I’m happy to tell other parents that we don’t own guns at all”) will likely tell you what you want to know.
If your friend is a police officer, take an interest in her job: “What’s the hardest part about it? The easiest? How many people have you ever arrested? Do you always have your gun on you? What do you do with it when you sleep?”
If you have a family member who likes hunting, ask him all about it. “How do you not fall asleep in the deer blind at 4 a.m.? Do you know how to make venison stew? Where do you store all that gear when you get home?” Along the way, you’ll likely learn how the gun in their home is stored, and they’ll probably love telling you about their hobby or profession, too.
Talking to friends and family about safe gun storage may feel a little nerve-wracking, but with the right approach it doesn’t have to cause social turmoil. Here’s hoping all of us will find the courage to broach the topic and make sure our kids enjoy many happy, safe holidays to come.