By Eric Russell
It's an uncomfortable question but one most parents have likely asked, even if rhetorically: How safe is my child in someone else's home?
Given recent events, more parents also may be asking whether those homes have guns, and what they should do if the answer is yes.
But while many parents want to know, few would actually ask.
A recent poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showed that Maine residents are fairly evenly split between households that have guns and those that do not. The poll also suggests that nearly 80 percent of Mainers favor some restrictions on guns.
Jennie Lintz, deputy director for the Center to Prevent Youth Violence, an affiliate of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said her organization instituted an Ask Campaign about a dozen years ago that encourages parents to ask other parents about guns.
However, a December 2011 poll conducted by the center shows a gap between what people think and what they actually do. Only 25 percent of parents polled said they had asked another parent in the past about guns in their home, but 89 percent said it was an important question to ask. Only 7 percent of those polled, including gun owners and non-gun owners, said they would be uncomfortable if asked and only 3 percent said they would be offended.
"What we've found is that there are these unwarranted fears about how that conversation might go," Lintz said. "But it should be like any health and safety question parents might have. Just add it to the list."
Parenting websites have had extensive discussions on the topic, but the responses are similarly conflicted: Most parents want to know but are afraid to offend.
Most Maine parents who responded to online queries by the Press Herald said they have not been asked by other parents if they have guns in their home, nor have they asked other parents the same thing. In most cases, parents said, they made a judgment call on their own about the parents of their children's friends, to either trust them or not.
Aaron Priest, 37, a photographer from the Penobscot County town of Lee, said he firmly supports gun rights but routinely does not leave any of his four children with anyone he doesn't know well and trust. A focus on guns, though, is short-sighted, he said. He said he would be just as concerned about pills or lighters and matches in someone else's home.
More importantly, he said, he doesn't let his children ride in someone's else vehicle unless he has driven with the person and is convinced he or she is a good driver.
But he has never had to ask.
"I already know what guns they have for the most part, and pretty much where they are stored, as we go out shooting together often enough," Priest said.
Tim McClure, 55 of Lisbon Falls, said he considers himself a responsible gun owner and would have no problem asking or being asked.
"In fact I'd show them (that) I store my guns in a safe manner," he said. "If they decide their child should not associate with mine, that is their right. Nor would I take offense. If anything, I'd applaud them for being concerned parents."
McClure said his sons, who are now 28 and 25, were taught about guns at an early age so he always felt comfortable knowing that if they were around guns at someone else's home, they would know how to conduct themselves.
Some studies show that parents who do have guns in their own home assume that their children either don't know about them or have not handled them. In many cases, though, children's accounts differ from their parents. A study by the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine showed that 73 percent of young children knew the location of their parents' guns but only 61 percent of parents said their kids knew.
Rebecca Tibbetts, 43, is a mental health nurse who lives in Portland with her husband. Their son is 23 now, but when he was growing up, there were only rifles or shotguns in the home. Tibbetts said her husband owned a handgun but she wouldn't allow it in the house.
"A handgun is different," she said.
She wouldn't have minded if another parents had asked if she had a gun at home, but said it never came up. On the issue of guns in general, though, Tibbetts said she was shocked to learn that her husband's handgun had never been registered and that registration of firearms is not required.
"I'm not anti-gun and I'm not an NRA supporter either, but we register our cars and even our dogs," she said. "I don't know why we don't register guns."
Michelle Belanger, 34, of Old Orchard Beach, said she and her husband don't have children but she wouldn't hesitate to ask other parents about guns.
"Especially now, you hear these awful stories about accidental shootings, why would you chance it?" she said.
Belanger said she and her husband are on opposite sides of the gun debate. After Sandy Hook, he was tempted to buy an assault rifle in case it was banned. Her response was to get rid of all their guns.
Awareness of guns and gun safety in the home has been heightened in recent years. In addition to the Brady Center's Ask Campaign, the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all pediatricians ask parents about guns. Steve Feder, a pediatrician in Boothbay Harbor and board president of the Maine Chapter of the AAP, said it's a safety question, and not one that is meant to imply judgment about someone's parenting style.
"In my experience, as long as it's brought up appropriately, I haven't had anyone take offense," he said.
However, Priest, the father of four from Lee, said he was "very offended" when asked about guns during a recent visit to his child's doctor.
"I was quick to point out that I also have cleaning supplies, paint, medications, and matches and I make sure to keep them out of children's reach too," he said. "Why (was there) no concern about those as well?
Feder said doctors ask a variety of safety-related questions, and he said parents shouldn't be shy either.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: