I didn’t grow up with guns in my house. My parents didn’t own one, and no one I knew as a kid talked about guns or had them in their nightstand drawer. At least, not that I was aware.
The first time I saw a real handgun, I was in my 20s. My former fiancee decided to buy a .357, and he took me to a local shooting range to practice with paper targets. I held the muscular weapon in my hands, placed my finger on the trigger and fired. The reverberation shook my body to the core, shocked by the sheer power of it. I put it down and never fired it again.
Fast-forward to my mid-30s, when I met and married a sixth-generation Texan. He didn’t understand my fear of guns. I didn’t understand the casual way in which he could pick up a rifle on his parents’ ranch.
Now we have a son growing up straddling our two cultures. I started teaching my son at an early age to never touch a gun without adult supervision and that if a friend tried to show one off, he should get away quickly. He knows the drill.
Or does he?
A friend of mine from high school, Alisa Hannah, never felt that she needed to talk to her kids about guns when they were young because she or her husband were always with them. And then one day, they went to visit their great-grandparents when her oldest was 6 and her twins were 3.
“They were playing on a piece of exercise equipment in another room and I got up to go check on them,” Alisa remembers. “At the exact moment, one of the twins had opened a drawer and found a loaded gun and was pulling it out of the drawer. It scared me so much that it still brings me to tears when I think of what could have happened in that one instant that I wasn’t looking. My grandparents were so shaken by it that they forever got rid of the gun.”
According to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit website that reviews more than 1,200 sources to track gun deaths and injuries in the United States, 197 children 11 and younger were killed or injured by accidental shootings from just January to April 2017. One accidental shooter was 2 years old. Another boy, 8, shot and killed his 5-year-old and 4-year-old siblings when he found his mother’s boyfriend’s gun.
We seem to be at a standstill: Gun rights advocates and gun control advocates have clashed over and over on how many guns are needed, and when and where. Parents on both sides of the issue are frustrated and afraid, for different reasons. Each school shooting has left a mark in my heart, especially now that I am a mother.
We already know about talking to other parents and relatives about gun storage when our kids are around. One thing we may not be talking about enough is the proper handling of a gun with specific strategies to avoid accidental shootings.
The truth is that many kids spend time in homes in which the parents are gun owners. And those parents may not have the same approach to gun safety as yours. Experts say it’s critical to (1) not avoid the topic, and (2) prepare our kids for what to do if they encounter a gun.
While the NRA has become a behemoth, pouring millions of dollars into lobbying to advance the rights of gun owners, it does have a kids’ safety program led by a character called Eddie Eagle. The kid-friendly video on their site instills a simple mantra: Stop. Don’t touch. Run away. Tell an adult.
Perhaps the bipartisan meeting ground on gun safety could be teaching kids what do to when they are faced with a gun. Maybe kids could learn it in the same way we all were drilled to “Stop, Drop and Roll” in case of fire.
Family doctor Deborah Gilboa says it’s far more proactive for parents to instill gun safety and respect than gun fear.
“Fear will raise their adrenaline and make them forget what to do, no matter how many times you tell them,” says Gilboa. “That’s why schools run fire drills and shooter drills — because practicing saves lives. For instance, doctors and members of the military are trained over and over on what to do in an emergency so that when the time comes, they don’t panic.”
Firearm enthusiast and father Gary Raymond believes both sides should focus more on firearm safety education.
“I’ve bounced some ideas off my kids and their friends, and they think that a short presentation from a safety expert would resonate with their peers. An hour-long class showing gun safety and statistics for accidental deaths due to guns could make a pretty serious impact. Knowing how to properly use a firearm can literally make the difference between life and death.”
Television, movies and video games that teach children to detach from what guns can do in real life doesn’t help. Conscientiously teaching kids the reality of guns vs. the celluloid and cartoon portrayal of guns as cool accessories is paramount to responsible parenting. A native Texan friend suggested parents should let their kids watch them shoot into a watermelon and the damage it does to help them understand. The watermelon represents a human head; with one bullet, it’s shredded to pieces. Graphic, but perhaps effective in its demonstration.
Former police officer and gun range owner Chris Rainey agrees. “The dialogue I think we need is, ‘Guns aren’t going away, so we need better education.’ When you teach people martial arts skills, they learn how to avoid using it. It’s the same with firearms: We teach kids how to use it and how to NOT use it.”
Brad Thor, one of my favorite authors of multiple bestsellers, has served as a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Analytic Red Cell Unit and has lectured to law enforcement organizations on over-the-horizon/future threats. In short, he’s a fierce protector of the Second Amendment. And he’s a father who taught his kids about gun safety from the start.
“I wanted my children to be as informed as possible, so that they could be empowered to make the right choices if they were ever faced with an unattended firearm. As responsible parents, we talk to our children about not only drugs and sex, but also the dangers and consequences that accompany them. Why not do the same with firearms? It seems to methere is no better thing you can do for your children than to arm them with knowledge,” says Thor.
A key safety tip Thor and Rainey believe in is ratcheting the “cool factor” way down when it comes to firearms and kids.
“It is of the utmost importance for parents who are gun owners to completely and totally demystify firearms. My goal as a parent who owns firearms was to replace my children’s awe (which came from seeing weapons as cool in movies and video games) with respect,” says Thor. “In a sense, I guess you could say that I provided so much access and worked so hard to frame firearms as tools that I absolutely torpedoed the cool factor.”
At Thanksgiving last year, we finally broke out the Daisy rifle (the infamous “You’ll shoot your eye out!” BB gun of “A Christmas Story”), and I watched my husband school our 7-year-old on the proper way to hold the gun. He drilled him over and over on safety features. Our son gained confidence as he aimed at the paper targets and enjoyed himself; my own tension started to unravel. My hope is that maybe if my son understands the power of a firearm and what to do if he sees one, we can save a life – his or someone else’s. And maybe saving kids’ lives through education is a rallying point we can all agree upon.