From a child-safety perspective, guns are as much a reality as swimming pools, electrical outlets, matches or poisonous household cleaners. In the same way that parents teach their children about those other risks, so they should educate their children about the risks guns pose and how to avoid them. This applies to parents who love guns, to parents who hate guns and everyone in between – the politics of guns are immaterial when it comes to children’s safety. In this article, we explore the importance of and approach to talking with children about guns as a means of reducing the potential they will be injured or killed if they encounter one without an adult present.
Note: Ownership of firearms is a deeply personal decision and, for many, a divisive and emotional issue. This article is not intended to encourage firearms ownership or to take a stance on whether or how children should be exposed to recreational or defensive firearms use. Rather, it is intended to help all parents, regardless of how they feel about firearms, reduce the risk of their child being injured or killed should they encounter a firearm outside the supervision of a responsible adult.
The Realities About Children and Guns
From a very early age, children are exposed to guns through cartoons, television shows and movies. Guns often are glamorized, their ability to injure or kill understated and the manner in which they are handled on-screen fundamentally unsafe. Many children play with gun toys at an early age and have older siblings that engage in simulated gunplay sports like paintball and Airsoft. All of these can increase children’s misconceptions about guns.
Barring any other source of information on what to do, young children especially are prone to exhibiting unsafe behaviors when they encounter guns without adult supervision. However, older children are not immune – a recent study shows that 75% of 8- to 12-year olds will handle a gun that they encounter outside of adult supervision and 50% of those who do will pull the trigger while handling the gun. Teenagers, with even larger social networks, increased time outside adult supervision and especially prone to dares and other peer-pressure may be both more likely to encounter guns and to engage in unsafe behavior – even when they know better.
In households where parents have strong feelings about guns – positive or negative – a child’s interest in guns may be piqued even further by their parents’ words and actions regarding them. Children in households with strong negative emotions about guns may be more likely to seek them out due to curiosity or to challenge parental authority. Children in households with strong positive emotions about guns may be exposed to and emulate unsafe gun handling practices.
In short, your child could come in contact with a gun at a neighbor’s house, when playing with friends, or under other circumstances outside your home. No matter how you feel about guns, it is critical for your child to know what to do if he or she encounters a gun anywhere, and it is your responsibility as the parent to provide that training.
Talking About Guns with Young Children (Pre-K through Third Grade)
It is possible, even advisable, to start talking with children about guns as early as their toddler years. While there are many approaches to the conversation, one of the best and most widely recognized is the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program. This program was developed by the National Rifle Association in cooperation with clinical psychologists, reading specialists, teachers, curriculum specialists, urban housing safety officials, and law enforcement personnel and since has been delivered to over 21 million children and has been endorsed by governments and law-enforcement in all 50 states.
The exclusive purpose of the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program is to promote the safety of children by teaching a simple and easily remembered message:
If you see a gun:
Leave the Area.
Tell an Adult.
The Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program makes no value judgments about guns, and no guns ever are used in the program. Guns are not characterized as good or bad, but simply as something potentially dangerous. The program never mentions the NRA or encourages children to buy guns or to become NRA members.
Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program materials can be obtained at nominal cost by anyone, and the program has been designed to be taught by any adult who can read the materials. Instructor guides that walk through the lesson plan step-by-step are available. The program can be taught in schools, civic organizations, or at home. NRA Eddie Eagle Volunteers (of which the author is one) receive additional guidance on teaching the course and work in their communities to promote and deliver the program.
For more information about the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, please contact the author or visit the NRA Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program website at http://www.nrahq.org/safety/eddie/.
Talking About Guns with Pre-Teens (Fourth through Sixth Grades)
If the first parental conversation with a pre-teen about guns doesn’t occur earlier, the same message (Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult) must first be communicated. However, it may be possible to convey this message to pre-teenagers more directly and with less structure than is required with young children. In addition to this simple message, it is important to make sure that pre-teenagers:
- Understand the difference between toy guns and real guns (including BB and pellet guns)
- Realize that the way guns are portrayed in cartoons, other television programs and movies doesn’t reflect reality
- Know that they will not be disciplined about telling an adult about encountering a gun so long as they didn’t touch it
- Feel comfortable asking their parents questions about guns
In households with guns, it may be desirable to show pre-teens where and how the guns are stored, and to emphasize that the guns should never be handled without an adult present. It is also critical that parents and others always exhibit safe gun-handling lest poor gun-handling practices be emulated should a gun be encountered outside adult supervision.
In households with positive or neutral emotions towards guns, parents should consider exposing children to guns in a controlled environment to demystify them and reduce children’s temptation to seek out and handle guns out of curiosity. For children whose parents are likely to promote gun ownership or participation in shooting sports, this is an excellent time to offer training in safe gun-handling.
In households with negative emotions towards guns, it is critical to find a way to demystify guns even if the parents are strongly opposed to their ownership or use. From personal experience, the author knows that the more guns are vilified at this age with no practical information or exposure provided, the more curious about guns a child is likely to be, and the more prone a child will be to handling one if encountered outside adult supervision.
Talking About Guns with Teenagers (Seventh Grade and Above)
By this age, it is unlikely a child will be ignorant about the existence of guns or oblivious to the dangers they pose if handled improperly. Unfortunately, at this age, children are more likely to engage in unsafe behavior with guns even though they know the risks due to a desire to rebel or succumbing to peer pressure. Parents of teenagers should be explicit about what their child is expected to do if he or she encounters a gun outside adult supervision. Those expectations may vary greatly by family and by teenager — the important part is that teenagers know what is expected and the consequences if they fail to meet those expectations.
Parents of teenagers should take care to communicate and reinforce:
- Guns should never be used to express anger or other negative emotions
- It is never wrong to ask a peer not to handle a gun in their presence without adult supervision, or to leave if a gun is present and they feel uncomfortable
- It is never wrong to tell a parent or other trusted adult if another child (teenager or otherwise) has or talks about having a gun at school or church, or ever talks about using guns to harm others
In households with guns or with positive emotions towards guns, children may already be allowed access to guns or even have guns of their own. It is critical at this stage to ensure that they understand and practice safe gun-handling skills, store guns securely, and do not allow their peers access to their or the family’s guns without explicit permission and (optimally) adult supervision.
Additional Steps Parents Can (and Should!) Take
The aforementioned dialogue and education will go a long way, but there are additional steps adults can take to reduce the potential of their children being injured or killed in a gun accident:
- If you own guns, store them so that they are inaccessible to children and other unauthorized users
- If you own guns, ensure that you know and practice safe gun handling at all times
- Ask relatives and the parents of friends whether they own guns and about how they are stored – and don’t be afraid to ask for changes before allowing your child to visit
- Encourage other parents to talk with and educate their children about guns – consider hosting or sponsoring an Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program for younger children in your community
The Bottom Line
Love them or hate them, guns are present in about half the households in the United States and that fact is unlikely to change any time soon. Hundreds or thousands of children are injured or killed each year when they come into contact with guns outside of adult supervision and don’t know how to react appropriately. This is a terrifying possibility for every parent (gun-owning or not), but there are simple steps every parent can take to reduce their child’s risk. The simplest and most important of these is to talk to children about guns and, as appropriate the age of the child, about what they should and should not do if they encounter a gun outside of adult supervision.