My son Markie is a character. He is a short, little guy who loved basketball. In fact, he got mad at me once for making him go to bed instead of letting him watch the NBA finals. One night, I found him -- at age three -- cooking something in the microwave in the middle of the night. He ate whatever it was and went back to bed.
June 4, 1998 began as a routine day. I kissed three-year-old Markie and my five-year-old daughter Jennifer goodbye as I took my two older girls to school. A day that began so normally ended with heartbreak and pain that I still can't begin to explain.
That night, when I went to pick Markie and Jennifer up, I was running late due to heavy rain and traffic. The sitter had to go to her evening job and left her 11-year-old son in charge for just a few minutes. In that short window of time, the son found a gun in the closet, loaded it and began playing with it. Markie startled him when he walked in the room and ended up shot in the heart. My five-year-old Jennifer had to call 911. I raced to the hospital and was surprised to find the TV news already there. The doctors told us his injuries were too extensive they could not repair his little heart. He was gone.
We had lost our son and soon realized another mother was on the verge of losing hers as well. The 11-year-old was like a brother to my son and this had been a horrible accident. He spent the summer locked away in juvenile detention. After months of pleas, he was finally released with probation to get the counseling he needed. But, even now, his scars are still there some 16 years later. He has a burden no child should have to carry and this is the knowledge he took a life of someone he loved.
We live in a good neighborhood so I never thought there was a need for a gun. We don't hunt so I didn't think about others having a gun. We felt as all parents do, that we were adequately protecting our children. We chaperoned field trips. If our child wanted to go swimming with a friend, we asked who was supervising, how many kids were going.
When we interviewed the sitter we noted the house was spotless, plug covers were in the electrical outlets and safety gates were in the doorways. We asked about emergency procedures, and foods they would be served due to the kid's allergies. However there was one question I never even thought to ask and that was: "Is there a gun in the house?"
The statistics make it clear why asking the question can save a child's life: Nine children and teens are shot each day in gun accidents. Nationwide, one out of three homes with children has a gun, many kept unlocked or loaded. Approximately 1.7 million children in the U.S. live in homes with unsecured guns.
We thought we were asking all the right questions. In Markie's case, the sitter thought that since the gun was hidden in the closet, taken apart and unloaded it was safe. It wasn't.
Talking to children about the dangers is not enough. Children are curious, and countless tragedies have taken place because children played with a gun that parents thought was well hidden or safely stored. However, many parents cannot overcome the embarrassment they feel about asking a friend or neighbor about guns in their home.
While mass shootings flood the headlines, children are more likely to be killed or injured in a home. Asking about a gun where children visit or play is something easy parents can do to protect their children.
I know the pain we went through and want to make sure no other family experiences a similar tragedy. So, as National ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Day approaches on Saturday, June 21, I ask that you pledge to ASK the question and encourage your friends to ASK. But don't just ASK this weekend, ASK each time your child goes somewhere new.
I wish I would have. I'd much rather plan visits to Markie in college than balloon releases at his grave on his birthday.