Former teacher and Gun Safe Mom founder Missy Carson Smith with daughters Lucy (far left, holding a photo of her uncle Jeff Carson, who was killed by a handgun at age 12), Izzy, Sadie and Bernice. (Jeff Smith / Special to The Detroit News)
Missy Carson Smith wants to know if there's a gun in any house where her kids are playing. She wants other parents to know if there's a gun in hers.
There isn't, in her case. Not anymore. But she wants the parents of her children's friends to feel free — no, more than free, to feel eager — to raise the subject.
Do you keep guns? Where are they? Are they loaded? Locked away? Do the kids know where they are, or where to find the key?
It's not about politics or philosophy. It's about safety, the same way you'd talk about food allergies or booster seats or life jackets on a boat. But those are casual, comfortable, easy.
With guns, the topic is loaded, even when the weapons aren't. A simple question can sound like a challenge.
It shouldn't, Smith says. There's too much to lose. If a conversation feels awkward, try a funeral.
Like her brother's.
That's why she started Gun Safe Mom. Why she took the time to learn about safes and safeties. Why she sat in the living room of the family a few doors down in Traverse City, almost shaking, and thanked them for helping her realize what an important issue this is, and what she needed to do about it.
Learning from experience
Her story starts with Jeff. Not her husband Jeff, who she met in her final class at the University of Michigan, but her brother, Jeff Carson.
It was January 1986. Jeff was 12 years old. His mother dropped him off at another boy's house in Grosse Pointe.
The boy had helped himself to the family's handgun. Five minutes after he arrived, Jeff was dead.
Smith was not quite 14. Now she's 41, with four daughters aged 9 to 5. Four years ago, her oldest was in kindergarten with a girl on the block.
The Smiths liked the family. They would carpool to school: Isabella, the neighbor girl, the girl's two older brothers. It was a big deal when Izzy played at their house for the first time.
A few weeks later, in the car, the girls were horsing around. Laughing, not threatening. But one of them said, "I'm going to kill you," and Smith blanched.
We don't make threats, she said. That's nothing to joke about. The girls nodded and went back to playing, but she could tell she still had the attention of the boys — one 10 or 11, the other two years younger. So she told them about Jeff.
There was a pause. "We have a gun in our house," the older boy said, "but we know not to go in that room."
Ubiquitous in homes
Good Lord, Smith thought. We have guns, too, and I don't even know exactly where.
Her husband's family hunts, though he hasn't in ages. His father had given him a 12-gauge shotgun, a .22 rifle and a handgun. They were in the basement, it turned out, in canvas cases, unloaded and trigger-locked. But given her history, how could she not have checked?
The weapons wound up in her in-laws' gun safe. Smith wound up with a calling, and a business. A very small business, with sales in the triple figures since its launch in January, but potentially an important one.
The product line at www.gunsafemom.com is simple: $5 decals, $8 suction-cupped plastic signs. "Gun Safe Mom," they say, on the theory that moms control the social calendars. "Unlock the conversation."
"This isn't about whether someone should have guns," she says. They're legal, they're plentiful, they're not going away. It's about feeling at ease making sure that if your children are sharing a house with a lethal instrument, its owners are being careful.
"I didn't really want to talk about it," she says. As smoothly as that first conversation with her neighbors went, she had dreaded it. But is that, she asks, how we're weighing our children's safety? On whether it's worth a few hesitant moments?
"This is not just about your house," she told the neighbors.
It's about our world and our kids — which, let's face it, are usually the same thing.
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