I ask

When Katy Rank Lev, a board member of the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library, was running the half marathon recently, she saw a billboard for Asking Saves Kids, or ASK. ASK is a national campaign encouraging parents to ask everyone whom their child visits: Do you have guns in the house? Are they unloaded and locked up?

Says Lev: “I realized that the Toy Lending Library is not a gun-free space”—in the sense that under Pennsylvania law, those with open-carry and concealed-carry permits would not be prevented from having a gun in the library or many other facilities that aren’t schools, courthouses or federal buildings. Ceasefire PA, the gun-control advocacy group, notes that private properties may post their own rules but not many are posted.

“It was a no-brainer to open the doors for this” ASK campaign, Lev says. On June 2, they held a conversation with ASK, facilitated by Nadine Champsi, a local physician turned Pittsburgh Mommy Blogger, in the library’s space. With lots of members from foreign countries, Lev says, the group also “thought this was a good opportunity for them to find out about the gun laws in America.”

“Today’s event was a very productive step forward,” says Champsi. “We discussed barriers we face in discussing this topic with other parents. We also brainstormed ideas about how to ask the question without feeling awkward. Most importantly, we got the conversation started. Honestly, I think it’s just going to take one parent at a time making a commitment to start this conversation, then another parent, and then another one until asking becomes normalized and children’s lives are saved.”

Champsi remembers being younger and seeing a cousin take out his family’s gun. Happily, it wasn’t loaded. “But I believe it happens more than we think,” she says. Thanks to her master’s degree in public health, Champsi often posts about public health issues. When ASK approached her several months ago to take on the issue, she hosted a guest post by a Massachusetts mother, Ann Marie Crowell, whose son was killed because of an unlocked, loaded gun at her son’s friend’s house. The post has gone viral “all over the country,” Champsi says.

Now, with National ASK Day set for June 21, Champsi had been searching for ways to keep momentum going on the issue—hence the discussion at the library, where Champsi and her two kids, ages 2 and 4, are members.

Tim McHugh, national ASK spokesperson, says there are no statistics on how much of a problem the mix of kids and deadly weaponry might be, but notes that 36 percent of Pennsylvania households have a gun. ASK estimates that this puts 110,000 children in homes with loaded guns and 50,000 in homes with unlocked, loaded guns.

“When kids go to a house to play,” he says, “you might ask about, will there be cigarettes, or if there is a pool, will anyone be watching? If your child had peanut allergies, you wouldn’t hesitate to ask, when you’re dropping her off,” if the parent can avoid food with peanuts. Asking similar questions about guns, he says, “shouldn’t be an embarrassing thing to ask.”

Champsi has begun asking her friends and the parents of her children’s friends about their guns, and she admits to early trepidation about it. “It is really weird, because these are people I’ve known for a long time.” Bringing up her own involvement in the ASK campaign is a great icebreaker, she has found.

In fact, she finds that parents want to add another dimension to ASK’s campaign—”to educate kids what to do if they get in front of a gun.”

Her favorite thing about the campaign? “You don’t have to be pro- or anti-gun control to believe in this message.”

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.