As Americans drift apart on guns, parents worry whether a playmate’s parents have firearms at home


On Monday, a school shooter in Nashville shot through the windowed doors of a private Christian school and proceeded to kill three adults and three children under the age of 11. Sadly, the tragedy in Nashville is not an isolated event, but part of a larger trend: As reported by the nonprofit advocacy group Gun Violence Archive, 59 children were killed by gun violence just in the first 87 days of 2023.

Yet mass shootings in schools are not the only sites where children are being killed by guns. In the last few months, accidental shootings in U.S. homes have killed multiple children; these shootings often come as a result of unsupervised children finding and playing with an adult’s legally-owned gun. In early March of this year, a three-year-old in Texas shot and killed her four-year-old sister after finding a loaded semi-automatic pistol. In Alabama, a four-year-old accidentally shot his 8-year-old brother in early March. And in February in Louisiana, a six-year-old died after finding an unlocked and loaded handgun in his home.

“I know some people think it might be uncomfortable to have that conversation, but it literally could save a life,” Creighton said. 

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finalized firearm mortality data for 2021, concluding that among those killed by gun violence in 2021, 2,571 were children under the age of 17. That marked a 12.7 increase from 2020, they noted. Moreover, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found that firearms are the leading cause of death for children in the United States. Contrast that to other wealthy countries, where firearms rank no higher than the fifth leading cause of death.

Given these dire statistics, it is no wonder that online parenting forums are rife with anxious parents asking how to broach the issue of whether there are guns at their kids’ friends’ homes. Indeed, given the deep cultural and political divides around guns in the United States, asking a playmate’s parent about the accessibility of firearms in their house is an understandably fraught topic.

Colleen Creighton, director of the End Family Fire program at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told Salon in an interview that it is “absolutely” a discussion topic parents today have to contend with when organizing playdates. 

“I know some people think it might be uncomfortable to have that conversation, but it literally could save a life,” Creighton said. “And not even just for playdates. . . . if you’re traveling for the holidays with family members — grandparents, relatives, friends — it should be commonplace. We don’t hesitate to ask about peanut allergies, and other allergies, we need to be able to fold in more messaging about guns.”

Creighton pointed to some high-profile cases in which a child was shot at a friend’s house because of the presence of an unsecured gun. For example, in 2021, a 15-year-old named Christian Petillo was shot at a sleepover in Arizona in an accident. Since then, his parents have been working with legislators to pass a common-sense gun law in the state; dubbed Christian’s Law, it would require gun owners to keep guns and ammunition locked in a storage container. When not secured, guns would have to be on one’s person or in close proximity; violators would be subjected to a civil penalty of at least $1,000, as reported by the Arizona Mirror. The bill was recently introduced in the state House of Representatives. 

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Creighton said gun safety has become a concern for American parents today, perhaps more so than previous generations — because, in short, there are so many more guns.

“There are a lot more guns in circulation right now than there were previously, and different kinds of guns too,” Creighton said. The Brady Center, Creighton noted, is “concerned” about 3-D printed guns and ghost guns, both of which can be constructed in stages without a background check. Creighton said that with these two possibilities for at-home gun construction, guns are becoming more accessible and, in some cases, untraceable. 

According to an analysis of 41 targeted school shootings which occurred from 2008 to 2017, 76 percent of firearms used were obtained from a student’s home, or a relative or friend’s home.

Semi-automatic weapons known as “AR-15-style” rifles have also become more commonplace as a proportion of the overall number of firearms. This type of semi-automatic weapon was used in the recent Nashville school shooting, and are known to be especially deadly because of their ability to lacerate organs. As Salon previously reported, there are an estimated 19.8 million AR-15 style rifles circulating in the country — a significant increase from the 8.5 million that were circulating before the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004.

Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a gun violence survivor, previously told Salon that these guns can be especially devastating for children. “It’s not uncommon to see bones that are disintegrated,” Sakran said. “You can have tissue that looks incredibly jagged and even has become necrotic in how it looks and how it feels — because, again, that energy and that blast effect has really impacted and caused this kind of cavitation.”

Creighton said the rise of firearm accidents and gun violence involving children is due to inadequate gun laws in many states. 

“A lot of states and communities have differing gun laws,” Creighton said, noting that “safe storage” is often not legislated for or well. “There are a couple of national bills that haven’t gone anywhere that are requiring safe storage,” Creighton said. Much gun violence “stems from having loose access to firearms,” he added. 

Moreover, many school shootings happen because of adults not properly storing firearms in their homes. According to an analysis of 41 targeted school shootings which occurred from 2008 to 2017, 76 percent of the time firearms used were obtained from a student’s home, or a relative or friend’s home.

According to the most recent reports about the Nashville shooting, the 28-year-old shooter hid weapons in the family home, which the shooter’s parents allegedly didn’t know about. In that case, the shooter reportedly legally purchased seven weapons from five local stores.

Last week, prior to the Nashville shooting, the Brady Campaign launched a new addition to their life-saving End Family Fire campaign, focusing on what can happen when an unsecured gun is misused. 

“This latest effort from End Family Fire taps into the wider ramifications that an unsecured gun can have in a way our campaign has never done before,” said President Kris Brown. “For the first time, we have expanded our effort to show the impact of unsecured firearms being misused both inside and now outside of the home, like in a school.”

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