The “gun issue” is one that is steeped in double-sided propaganda and is often used to further a hidden agenda. Can we skip the politics and agree that a lot of people own firearms in America? Even if you don’t own one, the odds are that parents of your child’s friends do. Can you guarantee that your child will never play, or spend the night, in a home with a gun? Let me begin by sharing with you my agenda: to help prevent your child from becoming a statistic.
You have no doubt heard the stories that begin with a child finding an unsecure firearm. These stories rarely end without tragedy. I believe that every one of these incidents can be attributed to negligence and, therefore, are preventable. They are not accidents. The gun owner is at fault for the unsecure firearm, and the parents should have done a better job of educating their child to not play with guns. Hard words, but that’s reality.
According to this October 5, 2015 Washington Post article, there are now more guns than people in the United States. The website KidsHealth.org claims that one in three U.S. households contain a firearm. The guns are out there, and the likelihood of your child crossing paths with one is higher than you may feel comfortable with. No matter your comfort level or stance on firearms, I feel every parent should make the effort to educate their child on a possible gun encounter.
Most human beings come pre-wired with certain respects in place. I use respect instead of fear because respecting something’s ability to harm you does not mean you’re afraid of it. Most people have an innate respect of snakes and heights, even though they have never had a negative experience with either.
Psychologists, Eleanor Gibson and R.D. Walk, conducted the Visual Cliff experiments in the 1960’s. The experiment was intended to determine if various species of baby animals, human infants included, possess depth perception. What it also revealed was that infants avoided crawling over a perceived “cliff” or edge that would result in their falling, even when their mothers called to them from the other side of the “drop off.” They subconsciously knew that a fall could harm them. The same way children will most likely avoid a coiled snake, even if they are too young to know what it is. In our current world, children are more likely to encounter a loaded gun than a venomous snake. The only difference is that they have an innate respect to avoid one, even though both are equally deadly.
Parents universally tell their children don’t run with scissors, don’t take candy from strangers, avoid dogs you don’t know, and don’t play with fire. These warnings are ingrained early on because of the parents’ understanding of these safety threats. They know that children have fallen on scissors; have been abducted by strangers; have been bitten by dogs; and have burned themselves. It’s time to add guns to this list.
For children, and too many adults, firearms carry a mystique; a “cool factor.” They are drawn to them like moths to a flame. This is undoubtedly because of the glamorization of guns in practically every medium of culture. Children see guns as the tools of soldiers and policemen. They see them in movies, television programs, video games, comic books and cartoons. Guns are the tools the good guys use to beat the bad guys. A firearm is like a super power that allows you to destroy something without having to touch it, just like Superman’s laser vision. Combine these perceptions with a child’s inability to comprehend the finality of death and you begin to see what you’re up against.
The approach taken by many parents is to simply talk about what to do if their child encounters a firearm. This plan typically includes “Stop what you’re doing. Don’t touch the gun. Leave the room and go find an adult.” This advice mirrors that given by the National Rifle Association’s, Eddie Eagle program. Although the advice is sound, every parent should accept the reality that TALKING about firearm safety may not be enough.
The ABC News program, 20/20, did a feature on the NRA program in 1999. In it, they showed a group of kids ages 3-10 the Eddie Eagle video. The kids all voiced understanding the message. The adults then exited the room, leaving some prop guns behind. Hidden cameras revealed that the kids began playing with the guns shortly after realizing they were alone. Talk and a video, it would seem, weren’t not enough to accomplish the desired effect.
So how and when should you start? Your child will begin to become fully mobile at the toddler stage. This is also when they become extremely curious and begin to explore their environments. It is estimated that a three-year-old has enough finger strength to pull a trigger, so I’d suggest you begin before then. I feel the best way to start is to instill that verbal plan as a first step. However, I believe it is extremely important to demystify the coolness of guns by demonstrating reality.
Nothing reinforces “guns are dangerous” to a child quite like having them directly experience one firing. It is a very loud, attention-getting experience. This experience can, and obviously should, be safely performed by a licensed firearm instructor or law enforcement officer. Not, “Hey, boy, come on out here in the yard,” and blasting holes into the ground. The goal should be to SAFELY instill a respect for the destructive power of guns, not implant fear or, more dangerously, an over confidence in using firearms by a child.
I also suggest that you coordinate your firearm education with other parents with whom you are friends. Open a dialogue, not a debate, on the best way to ensure all of your children remain safe. Keep the politics and propaganda out of it. Then, test your efforts by recreating the 20/20 experiment where you leave and UNLOADED prop gun in a room with your children and secretly film it. There should be multiple people involved in coordinating this to ensure, 100%, that this is done safely with zero risk to the child(ren). If your child fails the test, don’t punish them or scold them. Educate them and continue until the message is received. This “training” is something that you should do frequently, even if your child does all of the right things. It takes frequent repetition over time to ingrain behavior.
If you own a firearm, you assume all of the responsibility that goes along with that, a huge part of which is to keep the weapon unloaded and secured at all times. Most likely, you keep a firearm in your home for self-defense. What do you think is more likely to happen, an intruder breaking into your home, or your curious toddler exploring your closet or wherever you keep your weapon? By keeping that gun unloaded and secure, you prevent that toddler from dying, or even possibly killing someone else. The few extra seconds it takes you to make the weapon ready in the event of a self-defense scenario is worth your, or your child’s, life.
Look folks, it takes less than a second for tragedy to occur. I have witnessed it many times and can assure you that it cannot be undone. A quick Internet search for “child accidentally shoots” yielded 1,460,000 results. This sort of thing happens all the time. DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING IT CANNOT, OR WILL NOT, HAPPEN TO YOU. I’ll share with you a story that isn’t one of those that’ll turn up online.
In 1986, I was around fourteen years old and was lying on my bed one evening. I don’t remember what I was doing but whatever it was got abruptly interrupted by a deafening BOOM. I ran into the living room to find my younger brother, stepsister and her friend all crying with their hands over their ears. The air was full of smoke and I recall being temporarily panicked that the house was on fire. Before I could yell for everyone to get out, I saw the gun.
My brother, Joseph, was eleven at the time. Our father, a Deputy Sheriff, had handed down to Joseph an old, bolt-action shotgun that belonged to him when he was a child. On this particular night, Joseph felt the need to remove the gun from the gun cabinet and clean it in the living room while my stepsister and friend watched television ten feet away.
Luckily, he knew enough about guns to point it at the floor. Unluckily, he didn’t know enough about guns to check and ensure it wasn’t loaded before he pulled the trigger. The shotgun was a .410 bore, which is the smallest of the shotgun family, yet had enough power to tear up a patch of carpet the size of a basketball and knock a small chunk out of the concrete foundation. Joseph could just as easily shot himself, one of the girls, me in my bedroom or our mom who was in the laundry room at the time. This was one of the rare times that a child playing with a gun resulted in an injury-free incident. From my experience, there is almost always a victim.
Bottom line: As a parent, gun safety begins with you. In addition to proper gun storage and ownership, it is your responsibility to ensure that your child or children learn to respect firearms (or any weapon) and, when faced with an opportunity to come into contact with one, know exactly what to do. This isn’t a task that is done in a day; it takes years of repetition and rehearsal. We all want our children to be safe in this crazy world we live in. Sheltering them from experiences they are likely to encounter is not how we do that. Gun safety is no different.
Jon McCarthy is a paramedic, and author of the upcoming book, Hard Roll: A Paramedic’s Perspective of Life and Death in New Orleans. A lover of 80’s pop culture and comics, he lives in New Orleans with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter: @JonMassCasualty and Instagram: gizmos_1