Jane Bradley: The USA, guns and children

IT MIGHT be the land of the free, but I’m sure glad I don’t live there. As a parent of a young child, you have enough to worry about.
More children in the US are killed in accidental firearm discharge than those with nut allergies. Picture: Tony MarshMore children in the US are killed in accidental firearm discharge than those with nut allergies. Picture: Tony Marsh
More children in the US are killed in accidental firearm discharge than those with nut allergies. Picture: Tony Marsh

Every mother or father has different things which obsess them. Some are massively anti- sugar, while others feed their youngsters bars of Dairy Milk on a daily basis. Others refuse their child any screen time at all, whereas others have Peppa Pig on in the background on loop.

Some get all worked up about whether their youngster should play outside unsupervised as they get older, others give them free rein to roam the streets.

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While I’m fairly laid back about most of these things, if one of my personal “rules” is broken for the brief period while my daughter is playing at a friend’s place, it is not usually a matter of life or death.

But in the US, it apparently can be. An American friend – also the proud owner of a toddler – recently posted a link on Facebook to a blog which talked about the “awkward playdate question”. It is one, my friend added, that needs to be tackled every time you leave your child to play at a house which is not your own.

The question? “Do you have a gun?” If so, the author writes, you need to quiz the family to whom you entrusting your child on where they keep said gun and what measures they take to make sure any nippers in the house cannot gain access to it. My mouth fell open. This is a question that, thankfully, living in Scotland, I have never had to as much as contemplate.

Writing on the website of a local paper in the US, the author of the blog argues that if your child had a peanut allergy, you wouldn’t hesitate in giving a fellow parent a list of instructions a mile long about how he or she should be treated at their house. The issue of firearms, meanwhile, is never discussed.

However, she says, more children in the US are killed through accidental firearms incidents every year than die of a peanut allergy. A frightening thought.

Federal data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention shows that an average of 62 American children aged 14 and under died each year in unintentional shootings between 2007 and 2011. Last year, an 11 year old in Philadelphia was killed when her ten year old brother found their mother’s gun – loaded and stashed under her bed – and accidentally pulled the trigger. The accident occurred when their mother had nipped out of the room to use the toilet. Of course, he had no idea what he was doing: how could he? He was not much more than a baby. But he will have to live with this mistake for the rest of his life, as will the rest of his family.

Parents all know what it is like when a group of children playing together go quiet. There’s noise, chatter and laughter then … nothing. On investigation, some minor catastrophy has occurred – one, playing hairdressers, has sliced off a chunk of another’s hair with a pair of craft scissors; they have decided to “decorate” the bedroom walls with crayons; they’ve found mummy’s make up bag and are drawing on huge clown faces with her Clarins eye pencil. But imagine if that eye pencil or pair of scissors was actually a firearm.

However, research into Scotland’s gun ownership proves that it is perhaps not such an irrelevant problem here after all. Stats collated by an international firearms injury prevention policy website found the estimated total number of guns – both licit and illicit – held by civilians in Scotland is 280,000. That’s 5.51 per 100 people. Of course, in the US, it is much higher at more than 100 per one hundred people: a terrifying figure which suggests, statistically, that everyone has one. This is obviously not the case: some will have multiple firearms in their possession, others will have none. Actually, the number of American households with a gun in their possession is estimated to be around a third.

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Many of these firearms are owned for completely legitimate reasons: the owner may be a farmer; or a keen rifle sportsman. Why they have the gun, however, is quite possibly irrelevant. How they keep it at home is not. While I’m not going to start quizzing every parent I meet at a playgroup in central Edinburgh about their gun habits, if I was to take my daughter to stay with friends in the countryside, for example, with people who I knew were keen grouse shooters, I now might. Just another thing to worry about.