By Amy, mom to A (1 year 3 months) and O (3 years 9 months)
Over the Labor Day weekend, I stopped my one-year-old from pulling all the books off the bottom two shelves of the living room bookcase three times. He managed to chew up two twigs and a walnut that had fallen off the tree in our yard, and he ingested unknown quantities of dirt. In a split second in which I turned my attention elsewhere, my three-year-old pushed his little brother down the stairs.
Luckily, everyone’s okay, and I think we’ll safely avoid a visit from Child Protective Services. We have carpeted stairs, the books are easily replaced, and the baby won’t die from any bugs he might possibly have ingested with the dirt.
In recent months Americans have been shocked by a number of incidents involving young children and guns – incidents that didn’t end nearly as happily as my children’s little mishaps over Labor Day. In Kentucky in early May, a five-year-old boy shot and killed his two-year-old sister. A couple of months later in the same state, a four-year-old boy shot and killed his six-year-old sister. And in New Orleans in July, a five-year-old girl killed herself with a weapon she found in a bedroom. Last month, a California SWAT officer was shot in the thigh at a children’s reading event when an eight-year-old boy somehow managed to pull the trigger on the officer’s holstered gun. Just this Saturday, an 11-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed her stepfather while he was showing off his new gun.
Anyone with a young child knows that the moment the kid starts really walking, all bets are off – kids are little and squirrely and can get into trouble in the blink of an eye. You’re stirring a pot of oatmeal and turn away from the stove to answer the phone. Your husband interrupts you, and for a split second you forget that you were about to tell your child to climb off that table, NOW! When you have several young children, or you need to get other things done around the house, or – God forbid – you are sleep deprived and sick, it all gets that much harder. It’s easy to second-guess the parents whose children fired the guns. In hindsight, maybe a parent shouldn’t have stepped into the backyard for a second. Maybe the eight-year-old California boy’s mom or dad shouldn’t have let him get that close to the officer’s gun. As a parent of two young boys, though, I tend to think this is asking parents to be superhuman. The only thing that’s kept my kids from shooting themselves or someone else is that there’s no gun around.
Even ammunition by itself can be dangerous. Young children may think bullets, like walnuts and twigs, look interesting to put in their mouths. Kids have died trying to tamper with bullets, or bang them on rocks, or hit them with hammer and nail.
It would be nice to think that gun safety would get easier once the kids get a little older and better at following directions. The Eddie Eagle rules are targeted at kids pre-K to third grade. They’re simple, clear, and easy to memorize: “If you see a gun, 1.STOP! 2. Don’t Touch. 3. Leave the Area. 4. Call an Adult.” The rules are great, one of the things for which the NRA should really be commended. The trick is to get your kids to follow the rules when you’re not around. Research shows that just telling kids the rules isn’t enough (also see here). You need to reinforce the message frequently, using active-learning and role-playing. It’s best if you practice the skills in the same kind of place where your child will encounter the gun.
Unfortunately, a study has found that even pre-teen boys whose parents talk with them about gun safety – and even ones whose parents think they’re not at all interested in guns – can’t really be trusted alone in a room with a gun. In a study that should send shivers down the spines of parents everywhere, medical researchers observed pairs of boys waiting in a room for 15 minutes. In a drawer in that room, the researchers had planted a handgun with a sensor on the trigger. Of the 29 groups of boys they studied, 72% found the gun. Among the kids who found the gun, three-quarters of the groups picked it up and touched it, and in half of the groups one or both kids actually pulled the trigger. The kids’ behavior was totally unrelated to their parents’ perceptions of how interested their kids were in guns, or to whether the kids had had gun safety instruction.
So the pre-teen years are obviously a problem. Maybe by the time my boys are teenagers they’ll be better at self-control and following gun safety rules? Unfortunately, right at this point adolescent hormones spike. Surely my boys will understand the rules by this point. But this is exactly when peer pressure is worst. In fact, peer influence is, I would guess, a big part of the reason the pre-teen boys in the study I discussed above behaved in ways their parents didn’t expect, and in contradiction of the gun safety rules they’d been taught.
Adolescent depression might be even worse than peer influence. Having a firearm in the home increases the risk of a teenager committing suicide – if firearms are removed from the home, some youth will commit suicide by other means, but many won’t. Studies of suicide attempts show that suicide is, despite its finality, usually impulsive. Tragically, however, impulsive suicide attempt are likely to be deadly when the weapon is a gun – between 78 and 90% of gun suicide attempts are fatal.
Many parents strongly believe that having a gun in the home is the safest way to protect their kids from danger. Unfortunately, though, evidence suggests the opposite – kids who live in homes with guns are actually more likely to die by gunshot than are kids living in homes without guns. As a result of this evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong position on guns and kids: “The safest home for children and teens is one without guns. If there are guns in the home, scientific evidence shows the risk of injury or death is greatly reduced when they are stored unloaded and locked, with the ammunition locked in a separate place.”
So how can we keep our kids safe from themselves when it comes to guns? In a world where guns are plentiful it may be almost impossible to completely protect our children. Still, here are some general guidelines that I’ve picked up.
- Follow the advice of this country’s flagship association of pediatricians. If possible, taking into account your family’s lifestyle and needs, keep guns out of the house entirely. If that’s not possible, follow their advice and keep your gun(s) stored unloaded and locked. Keep the ammunition in a different place, also locked up.
- To the extent possible, try to keep guns out of your child’s environment when he or she is away from home. If your child is at a home daycare center, ask the provider if she has a gun in her house. If your child goes over to a friend’s house on a play date, ask if the friend’s parents have a gun in the home. At your child’s public school, talk with the PTA about devising a plan to keep children from bringing guns into the school.
- You need to exercise special caution if you have a teen in the house who develops symptoms of depression. Teens are watchful and resourceful and they often know much more about how to get access to supposedly secured weapons than their parents realize. Even if the teen is well trained with firearms, intelligent and responsible, the best idea is to get the guns out of the house altogether – sell them or ask a responsible relative to store them (locked up) in another house to which your depressed teen doesn’t have access.
- Build in redundancies. Well-meaning, caring adults sometimes forget and, despite the best intentions (as well as penalties for negligence in a few states), they leave weapons in places where children can find them. As your child gets older, he or she will spend less time with you and in places you can monitor. You need to think about what your child will do if or when he or she encounters a gun.
- Drill the Eddie Eagle rules: “If you see a gun, 1.STOP! 2. Don’t Touch. 3. Leave the Area. 4. Call an Adult.” Talk about them. Repeat them regularly. Make sure your children understand them. Check for comprehension. Practice them by role-playing scenarios in which you find a gun.
- Always assume that any gun around is loaded, and treat it accordingly. Even if you yourself emptied the chambers, still assume it’s loaded. Mistakes happen, and people are human – tired, forgetful, rushed. Almost daily, we hear stories of accidents, often tragic ones, explained by someone who says, “I didn’t know it was loaded.” This rule should mostly apply to grown-ups, since kids should NOT be touching guns without adults around. Still, if there are guns in your household, it’s an important rule for EVERYONE to keep in mind.
- Some people recommend teaching your child to shoot. They argue that doing so will help your child learn to handle a gun safely, and will make her less curious about touching a gun if she encounters one. This might be logical, but I can’t find any research that shows whether such a strategy is effective. One study, however, did find that kids with guns in their homes were more likely to touch a gun in a risky, unsupervised situation. Gun researchers all endorse the Eddie Eagle rules as the single most important way to keep your kids safe around a gun. If you do teach your child to shoot, make sure you emphasize guidelines for gun safety – and most importantly, that you still rehearse the Eddie Eagle rules regularly.