I don't want my family's guns around my kids

Dec 21, 2015 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Rich Legg/E+/Getty Images

As a lawyer, I have the deepest respect for the Second Amendment and an individual's right to bear arms. But as I parent, I feel strongly about my right to keep my children out of situations where firearms are present. This bright-line rule served me well, until last month when I learned that my parents and other extended family members had recently obtained handguns and concealed-carry permits.

Asking potential playdates if there are guns in the house and declining if there are is one thing, but when Grandma's got a gun, deciding what measures to take to keep your kids safe can get very tricky.

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I grew up in a metropolitan area, and guns were something I saw only on television. No one in my family hunted or was a police officer, so with no exposure to guns, I grew to be afraid of them. Then I spent some time in graduate school working in criminal court, and as part of my duties, I learned how to handle guns and rifles that were evidence in criminal cases. Knowing how to check a gun's safety to determine if it was loaded made me feel a tiny bit more comfortable around firearms, but I still didn't care to own one.

Up until recently, my parents, aunts and cousins typically shared my views on firearms, but as mass shootings became near-daily occurrences in America, their opinions on owning a weapon for purposes of self-defense began to change. We live in Connecticut, and after the Sandy Hook tragedy claimed the life of one of my high school friends, the topic of handguns and self-protection started to come up more often at family gatherings. Two of my aunts obtained their concealed-carry permits last year, and several of my cousins soon followed suit. Last month my mother sat me down to tell me that she and my dad had also obtained handguns.

I know that it is within their legal right to own these guns, and I know that no member of my family would ever willingly and knowingly do anything to put the lives of my 3-year-olds in danger. At the same time, as an online parenting writer, I'm acutely aware of the fact that tragic accidents can and do happen when young children are around handguns. My basic instinct is to keep my children safe, and for me, that means keeping them far, far away from guns.

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My husband and I always swore we'd never let our children attend a playdate in a house where guns were present, but I wasn't sure how to handle the situation when it's Grandma who's packing heat. Drawing a line in the sand and refusing to visit with the family might prevent my children from accidentally getting shot, but weakening their bond with their relatives by reducing the amount of time they spend together hardly seems like it would be in my kids' best interests.

Rather than refuse to see my family or make FaceTime — the only way my parents see their grandchildren — I've had some very open and honest conversations with my mother about her handguns. These conversations are difficult, but they're very necessary. She's agreed that when the kids visit her house, the guns will be unloaded and in a locked box on a high shelf in a closet that has a separate lock. The door to the room is also locked to provide an additional measure of protection.

While these safety measures make me feel better, I'm still not entirely comfortable with the situation, and I doubt I ever will be. Simple human error and absentmindedness mean a tragedy could still happen. It's possible that we could stop by for an impromptu visit, and my parents would forget that the guns were out of their locked case for cleaning. At the same time, I know my parents aren't completely thrilled with the compromise. After all, an unloaded and locked-away handgun won't serve them well in the event they have cause to need it.

It was odd greeting my aunts and cousins with a "Happy Thanksgiving! Did you remember to leave your guns in the car?" as they walked into my sister's house for dinner, and I had to resist the urge to do an inconspicuous pat-down as I hugged them all hello. But I'm OK with being considered neurotic by my family if it means that my vigilance prevents an accidental shooting.

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I don't know how I'll address the issue of my family's handguns in the future. As my children grow and mature, I hope to teach them about guns. I hope they will understand that guns are not toys but rather weapons with deadly potential. Still, the risk of the unthinkable happening makes me think I won't be leaving the kids alone with Grandma for a weekend getaway anytime soon, and I'm saddened by the thought that my kids might not have that bonding time with my parents.

I'm trying to be rational. I know there are countless ways children can accidentally suffer serious injury. Before they owned handguns, we had a close call at my parents' house when they once left the door to the basement, complete with childproof locks, ajar. No matter how vigilant you are as a parent, accidents can and will happen, and I'm working hard to not let my fear of handguns make me see them as more dangerous than they are.

Mass shootings can and do happen in today's society. If owning a handgun makes members of my family feel safer, it's not my place to try to tell them otherwise, regardless of my personal feelings on the subject. But as uncomfortable as the conversations may be, I will continue to ask questions and take measures to keep my children away from loaded firearms. Hopefully my entire family will continue to remember that we share a common goal: We're all just trying to protect the ones we love.