21, No. 2
Guns in the Home: Considerations for Worker Safety
As a child welfare professional it is likely that at some point you will find yourself in a household where guns are present. Given this, it is reasonable to ask: how can I stay safe, and therefore ensure the best outcomes for families and children, when I am visiting people in their homes?
Best practice. We found little when we searched the literature for best practices related to home visits and the presence of firearms. Lyter and Abbot (2007) had a similar experience and noted: "Given the merits of home visitation, the social work commitment to community outreach, and the very real risk of harm posed by a violent society, there is a surprising lack of information on the safe conduct of home visits. . . . A review of the literature reflects minimal research addressing the topics of dangers in the field and efforts to enhance worker safety... the most surprising information about the topic of safety and home visiting is the lack of information."
In an attempt to fill in the gaps, Practice Notes interviewed Matthew Sullivan about home visitation and guns. Mr. Sullivan's unique background includes working as a police officer, getting an MSW and working as a police social worker, obtaining a law degree and working on behalf of emergency services. He currently serves as the interim Fire Chief in Chapel Hill, NC.
Interview with Matt Sullivan
During a case review or interview with a client you may learn that they own a gun. Now what?
Once you find out a gun is in the home, or you see one during your visit, you might begin by asking a question such as, "Since my job is about thinking about children and their families being safe, may I ask you some questions about your gun?" After this opening, Mr. Sullivan suggests follow-up questions such as: What do you use the gun for? How often do you use it? Where and how is it stored? Do the kids ever use it, and if so in what circumstances? He also recommends always asking who else is currently in the house, or if they are expecting visitors or someone to come home soon..
Many people who have not grown up around or handled guns are uncomfortable with their presence. If you fall into this category, acknowledging that you have not been around guns and asking the client to educate you can alleviate everyone's stress and help you gather information and build rapport with the client.
The client's answers to questions like those above will help you ascertain what to discuss next, such as the safe storage of weapons, the natural curiosity of children, or whether the client feels safe with the gun in the home. If others are home or are expected to arrive home soon, be conscientious of the client's privacy and where/how topics are discussed.
A gun is in plain sight. Do not touch it or ask the client to move it. If possible, create distance between yourselves and the gun. Even in a non-threatening situation, moving the gun to a safer place could result in an accidental discharge. Additionally, if the gun is removed from sight you no longer know where it is. The client could be concealing it, or another person in the house could have it. If possible, ask the client to move to an adjoining room or different end of the room so there is more physical distance from the gun, but you still know where it is.
A client is carrying a gun. This can be tricky based on the individual's history and current mood. Leave if needed. Otherwise, set clear boundaries and address the issue of the gun directly and respectfully. This may mean rescheduling a time to come back when the client doesn't have the gun on them, arranging a meeting at the agency, or leaving and asking law enforcement to accompany you back for the visit. Mr. Sullivan says, "If you are already in fear for your safety, adding law enforcement to the situation probably can't make rapport with the client any worse."
You are threatened with a gun. No one knows exactly how they'll respond in this situation unless it happens. Your short-term options are to flee, flee and hide, or fight. Which you do should be determined situationally.
Removing guns. The legality of asking clients to remove guns from their homes can be complicated. In domestic violence cases the judge can order guns to be removed from the home. If a client genuinely wants to get rid of a gun they can sell it through an authorized gun dealer, have a family member or friend store it for them, or check with their local police department. Some departments have policies which allow officers to collect and destroy guns with consent of the owner, but they typically cannot remove a gun without consent (or a judge's order) or hold it for someone to retrieve later.
Other tips and suggestions. In Mr. Sullivan's experience, if there are drugs in the home there are likely guns in the home as well. The number of guns present may fluctuate based on who is currently home. This is another reason why it is so important to know who else is home and who may be coming or going. When visiting with clients, try to avoid bedrooms, as this is where guns are often stored.
Body language and positioning also matter. When talking with a client, angle your body so you are not "squared off" with the client. Also, try to maintain access to an exit such that you would not need to pass by the client in order to leave.