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How I Talk to My Children About Guns

September 3, 2013

By Kim Parker Russell, via

135-50579-talkguns-1377885789In this country, a child or teen is shot every 3 hours and 15 minutes. I don’t want to scare my children, but I also want desperately for them to stay safe and to be aware of their surroundings. The hard part is figuring out how to do this without terrifying them and when to do it. Is a 6-year-old too young to learn about guns? I used to think so, until Newtown happened.

I’ll never forget the weekend of December 15, 2012. We were hosting a party for my son’s 4th birthday. My daughter was 6—nearly 7—and in the 1st grade. I was eager to remain festive but suffering from unexpected episodes of PTSD after the Newtown shooting. In 1999, I was shot during a robbery and my friend was killed.

My PTSD symptoms had subsided tremendously over the years, but suddenly they were back: the sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, a nauseated feeling, and an inability to move. That weekend, and for many weeks after, I could not stop imagining my children coming face-to-face with a gunman as I had 14 years ago. I flashed back to the utter terror I experienced when the heavy, cold barrel of a gun was pressed against my forehead after running from gunshots. Gunshots which I first thought were firecrackers.

I managed to carry on. At my son’s party, the kids ran exuberantly through our tiny house in Brooklyn. While dodging sugared up children, the adults were in the midst of serious conversations. Parents whispered, “Are you going to tell them?” It was clear among the parents of 4-year-olds that we weren’t going to mention it and would be careful when listening to the news. The parents of 6- and 7-year-olds, however, were on the fence. We all seemed to agree that we didn’t want them to know, but I was concerned. My daughter’s best friend has an older sibling and I didn’t want her to hear it secondhand.

Sunday night our public elementary school sent out a notice stating that the tragedy at Sandy Hook would be discussed in 3rd through 5th grade classrooms, but not mentioned in lower grades unless the children brought it up. This seemed reasonable to me, in part because I didn’t want to tell her, so my husband and I decided to go with that—we wouldn’t mention it until asked. We wouldn’t listen to the news around them.

Later that night I liked a Facebook page called One Million Moms for Gun Control, now known as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. A stay-at-home mom in Indiana founded the page in the days after Newtown, and through a friend of a friend, I found it.

I had lived in a bubble after my shooting, and that bubble made me feel safe. I convinced myself that what happened to me was random, that I was an anomaly. After Newtown, I realized that I could no longer exist there. I realized that if I didn’t fight with everything I had to prevent gun violence then I would be complicit.

Overnight, I went from full-time mom to full-time activist. Within a week I was quoted on the front page of the Indiana Star and interviewed by MSNBC. I haven’t stopped since.

Soon it became clear that I had to tell my kids something. This new accidental job was taking over our dining room, and I was constantly on the phone, attending rallies, and making television appearances. Every day I would check in with my daughter’s teacher, asking, “Anything mentioned today?”

I finally came up with something simple: “Mommy is trying to make sure scary people don’t have access to guns.” Simplicity worked for awhile.

Then came the day I was to speak at a press conference with Senator Chuck Schumer. It was a typical Saturday, full of multiple kid birthday parties. And in the mess of scheduling it all, my daughter ended up going with me at the last minute. There was vague talk about Newtown by families who had lost a loved one, by politicians trying to make change, and then it was my turn.

At this point, I had given a few speeches, and though I found them all nerve-racking, this one in particular made me uneasy. This time, my daughter was listening. My daughter was about to hear my story—my near-death experience with a gun—for the first time.

The story took place four days after Columbine. My dear friend Philip—a beloved high school teacher—and I were out to dinner in Atlanta. We spent hours talking about Columbine. Philip was worried about his students and worried about himself. After dinner, we drove to an art opening in an older neighborhood filled with beautiful Victorian homes. We had parked and were headed toward the party when Philip turned back—he wanted to lock his jeep. Suddenly, I heard a loud pop, and then I heard Philip yell. To this day I wish I knew what he said. Those were his last words.

I ran for cover as shots whizzed past me until one hit my back, leaving a long, bullet-shaped burn. It was dark and I couldn’t see. I dove under a truck for cover and then heard footsteps. I decided to play dead. It didn’t work, and soon a gun was pressed to my skull. He demanded my purse and removed the gun to take it from me. He then put it back. I tightened my muscles, squeezed my fists and prepared myself to die. For whatever reason, he removed the gun, shot in the air and ran away.

I’ll never forget how my voice cracked as I recounted the story in front of my daughter. I could sense her shock and confusion from across the crowded sidewalk. I wish I had insisted she stand next to me so I could hold her hand.

Heading to the subway I asked, “I know mommy’s work can be pretty hard to hear sometimes. Is there anything you want ask me?”

“Yes,” she said, “What you said … mom—the thing that happened to you—did that really happen?”

And with that our ongoing talks about gun violence began. It is still not easy, but I am somewhat relieved that she now knows. She also knows that not all of her friends are ready for it, so we’ve agreed to keep the talks between us. I answer her questions as truthfully as I can and try not to frighten her. Sometimes the questions are frequent and sometimes weeks go by until she asks me out of the blue if I used to run three-legged races with my friend Philip.

Sadly, at 7, she gets it.

Some of her questions are harder than others. She wants to know why it’s so easy for bad people to get guns, and why people want to hurt each other. I tell her that our government does its best to protect us, but sometimes a law may be ineffective or incomplete. It is up to us, as citizens, to speak out when we feel that our laws need to change. I want her to know that her voice matters.

I can’t explain why people want to hurt other people. I tell her that there will always be people in the world who want to cause pain. But the darkness that those people cause is vastly outweighed by the light and joy that many others spread. We must be careful in dangerous situations, and we must do our best to remain a force of good.

In June, I took her with me to a joint interview with a father of a Newtown victim. After our interview, the three of us got lunch. I was worried that it would be hard on him to sit with my daughter, so close in age with the son he lost. The father and I chatted as my daughter kept quiet while taking turns eating bites of food and working on a drawing. As we finished our meal, she signed her drawing and handed it to him. I was struck by her kindness and her desire to make him feel better. At 7, she saw someone who was hurting and with no knowledge of what had happened, tried to do her part to make it better. I am so proud of her.

My daughter now has some understanding of why I’m working so hard, but she has never understood why it is such an uphill battle. In March I took my daughter to hear President Obama speak at the White House about our country’s need for stronger gun regulation. It was a very special day and we were thrilled to have our “girl” trip. After hearing the President, she looked at me and said, “Mom, if President Obama agrees with you, and so many other people do, too, why do you have to work so hard?”

So far, that’s been her toughest question, and though I still don’t have an answer, I can at least promise that I’m trying.

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