Being married to a police officer leaves many things non-negotiable, including funky hours, weird days off, and gross dinner table conversations. Although all of these things can place major strain on spending time together (especially the last since you might find yourself finding ways to eat really quickly), one constant in a law enforcement home can kill. This constant is the presence of firearms.
As I read through the Officer.com headlines, one caught my eye. Chicago Boy Dies after Finding Officer Grandmother's Gun. My chest tightened and tears welled. Regardless, I clicked on the link. The story was devastating. A six-year-old boy fatally shot himself with a gun he found while sitting in his grandmother's car. His grandmother was a 17-year law enforcement veteran. She now faces administrative and criminal charges. But, worse yet, she faces the devastation of having to live without her grandson. Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident.
Only a few days before the Chicago tragedy, a three year-old boy shot himself with his father's duty weapon in Atlanta (GA). In February, 2006 a 13-year-old boy died from a semi-automatic gunshot wound in the home of his guardian, a Forest Heights (MD) police officer. In August, 2006, a four year-old boy shot himself while being babysat in the home of a Detroit police officer. Officers' children aren't the only ones being hurt. In July, 2006, an LAPD officer was shot in the chest by his three-year-old son while they were stopped at a red light. And, in October, 2004, a South Valley (CA) deputy's four year-old son shot a seven year-old playmate with his father's service weapon. Tragically, the stories go on and on.
What made these stories so emotional for me were two personal experiences. The first occurred several years ago when I was working as a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator. Officers under investigation would be assigned to our communications center. Rumors flew before one particular officer showed up for his first day of desk duty. Many of us had seen the news, and a few employees knew him personally, but none of us could relate to the heartache which enshrined him due to two-year-old son having shot himself. The story I heard was he had put his duty belt down on the kitchen table for just a moment, the phone rang, he turned to get it, and in a moment his life was changed forever. His son lived, but faced a series of abdominal surgeries. This officer's marriage and his career were not so lucky. Seeing the pain in his eyes, I could tell nothing done to him externally could compare to the internal punishment he now lived with.
The second incident hit even closer to home. Literally, it was at home. Having recently married a municipal police officer, one of the first things we talked about was gun safety. We agreed on the necessary caution each of us had to take to protect our sons from getting either his duty weapon, or one of the other firearms we owned. Many law enforcement homes contain numerous weapons. Ours is no exception. We have a five-hundred pound safe and I felt good about our commitment to the safety of our children. Then, only a few weeks later, I stood in our bedroom speechless. Slowly turning away from the black case on the floor, I shut the door behind me and headed to the living room. I stood in front of the couch and looked down at my husband still in partial uniform. I asked him, "Is that shotgun loaded?" A look of confusion crossed his face, and then understanding, and then horror. He quickly got up and took care of it. We didn't need to say another word about it. I knew he would never forget again. Thank goodness it was my question and not the ring of a gunshot that prompted his dedication.
Since that day, we haven't had another lapse. Instead, my husband has used his weapons knowledge and experience to expose our eleven-year-old son to gun safety. They have gone shooting together, cleaned the guns sitting side by side, and (thanks to the time my husband spent in the Marines) my son now knows how to reassemble a rifle in 1:14:00. Even with these strategies, I find myself asking, have we done enough? To answer that question, I turned to Common Sense about Kids and Guns, a non-profit group of owners and non-owners of guns who are "committed to working together to protect America's children from gun deaths and injuries." They offered the following tips for parentsa who own guns:
- Unload it and lock it up.
- Lock and store ammunition separately.
- Hide keys where children can't find them.
- Ask if guns are safely stored at places your children visit or play.
- Talk with your children about guns.
- Teach your children not to touch guns, and to tell an adult if they find one.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) agrees with these tips and encourages parents to talk openly with their children about guns. Their website states, "Talking openly and honestly about gun safety with your child is usually more effective than just ordering him or her to 'Stay out of the gun closet,' and leaving it at that. Such statements may just stimulate a child's natural curiosity to investigate further." Whether for or against gun control, the one constant theme in youth safety discourse is communication. The NRA also states, "As with any safety lesson, explaining the rules and answering a child's questions help remove the mystery surrounding guns. Any rules set for your own child should also apply to friends who visit the home. This will help keep your child from being pressured into showing a gun to a friend."
Following these rules, law enforcement homes can be safer. Talking with your children and teaching them about gun safety, as well as practicing responsible gun ownership can prevent a tragedy. As the NRA states, "In a home where guns are kept, the degree of safety a child has rests squarely on the child's parents." Due to this, officers whose lives are shattered by a firearms accident also face criminal sanctions. Imagine having your three-year-old child die as a result of your careless mistake. Now, imagine spending fifteen years in prison for manslaughter. It's a horrifying reality, but one that is preventable.
My only concern for law enforcement families, my own included, is the prevalent officer mentality that a gun is only useful if it's loaded. Like most citizens, officers intend to protect their home and family from harm. To accomplish this, they turn to the weapon they are most comfortable with. And I guarantee, it won't be unloaded and locked in a safe.