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FIREARMS SAFETY & CHILDREN

 

By Patrick Casey (pcasey@interart.com) and John Gunshenan (jpg@bbn.com).

 Reprinted with permission.

 

 

PREFACE

 

Owning a firearm is a very personal choice. In the document that follows, we make no attempt to persuade the reader to own or not own them.

 

 No matter how we feel about firearms, it is imperative that we teach our children the basics of firearm safety. Even if there is never a gun in your home, there may be one in a friend's, neighbors or a relative's home. Not teaching your children the basics of firearm safety is like not teaching them how to swim, or not teaching them to avoid hazards such as hot, sharp or pointed things. Children are curious. When it comes to firearms, uninformed children are likely to get hurt! Let us not let our politics blind us to ways to enhance the safety of our children.

 

We are not experts in child firearms safety; we are simply two rec.guns readers who felt the FAQ should have a section on this subject. Patrick is the father of two children (ages six & eight). John has a two-year-old, and is also an NRA Certified Instructor and a "We are AWARE" instructor (AWARE = Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment). What we offer below are simply our opinions. However, if you own firearms or have children, we suggest that you think about the issues that follow.

 

While Patrick and John are the compilers of this FAQ, they are not its authors. Credit in that department goes to the various authors listed at the end, and to the many rec.guns readers who helped develop it. This is a much better document for all the time, energy, and keystrokes donated by the rec.guns readership.

 

 

 

Children & Guns: Some Basic Facts

 

Department of Justice data indicate that there are over 200 million firearms in the United States, with guns present in roughly 50% of US households. Even if you do not own firearms, chances are you have been in houses where firearms were kept. If you have children, chances are they too have been in houses where firearms were kept.

 

According to the National Safety Council, 230 children under the age of 15 were killed in firearms-related accidents in 1991, the latest year for which figures are available. Since 1930, the number of annual fatal firearms accidents has decreased 55%, while the population has doubled and the number of privately owned firearms has quadrupled (National Safety Council, U.S. Census, BATF). While this decline in accidents is good, 230 accidental fatalities is 230 too many. What follows are some things you can do -- as a parent or as a gun owner -- to "gunproof" your children, and to "childproof" your guns.

 

 

For Parents

 

Like it or not, guns are out there in the world. They are a fact of life, regardless of whether we keep firearms at home. With guns present in roughly 50% of US households, your child is likely to encounter a gun at some point in his or her youth. They may be playing in grandma's attic, walking down an alley, or playing in the woods. They may be playing at a friend's house, where the friend says "Hey let's play with my Dad's gun!" Just as you teach your children about safety with respect hazardous materials they are likely to encounter -- electrical outlets, household chemicals, swimming pools -- so you should teach them the basics of firearms safety. The most basic gun safety message for children is the Eddie Eagle message:

 

If you ever see a gun laying out, even if you think it may be a toy ...

 

Stop!

Don't touch

Leave the area

Tell an adult

 

 

There is no perfect age to talk with your children about gun safety. You, the parent, must be the judge (Patrick's children learned the Eddie Eagle message at age four). For many, a good time to introduce gun safety is when your child starts acting out "gun play" or asking questions about guns. Answer his or her questions simply and straightforwardly. If you don't know the answers, contact a knowledgeable person.

 

The great advantage of teaching your children about gun safety is that it applies outside one's own home and teaches a crucial life skill; its Achilles' Heel is peer pressure. That is why childproofing the guns in one's home is also essential.

 

 

For Gun Owners, Even Those Without Children

 

If you choose to own a gun, you must take personal responsibility for securing it from unauthorized handling, whether by children, guests, neighbors, or criminals. If you choose to have a gun in your house, every member of your household should be trained in basic gun safety.

 

If you choose to keep a loaded gun available for protection, you have a special (and in some places, legal) obligation to keep that gun secured from unauthorized handling. This means keeping a solid lock between your guns and any visitors, whether children or adults. That can be the lock on your front door (no unsupervised visitors allowed inside, where loaded guns are out and available), a bedroom door (no visitors allowed in the bedroom), a closet, a gun cabinet, a safe, or a lock box. The choice is yours, but choose something.

 

If you choose to keep a loaded firearm for protection, carefully consider where to keep it. It is often recommended to keep the gun on your body when you are awake. This can resolve the dilemma - at the expense of some extra effort - at least for handguns, at least when you are awake. But many people cannot or choose not to carry their firearms, so the question of safe storage arises.

 

If you keep a firearm near your bed, you want to make sure you'll be wide awake when you pick it up, so keeping it too close to your bed may be a problem. You may want to use a lock box, one that you can open by touch, quickly, under stress, in the dark.

 

 

For Gun Owners With Children

 

In the home, nothing can or need be left to chance. There is no reason or excuse for exposing children to danger from firearms in the home. Obviating this danger by discipline and readily available safety measures is the first responsibility of the gun owner with children. This can be done, even if you keep or carry a loaded firearm readily available for defense. The few terrible circumstances of children killed or injured with a parent's gun betray unconscionable and utterly avoidable safety violations, failures of discipline and responsibility. If you have children, and if you choose to own firearms, you have an obligation to teach your children about gun safety.

 

There are lots of approaches that don't work, such as:

 

Hide it (they'll find it)

 

Get a gun that's too hard for a child to operate (they'll use tools or full-body leverage to operate it)

 

Get a gun with a magazine safety & keep the magazine on you (God help you if they ever get hold of a magazine)

 

Wizzy gadgets, including plastic rods, rubber bands, pinch-to-open trigger guards, etc. On the one hand, you can still make some things "go bang" with many of these, and most manufacturers do not intend their products to be used on loaded firearms. On the other, over-reliance on these devices tends to underestimate the ability of children to find keys, use tools, etc.

 

Always keep the gun on your person (and hope you never dream about having a gun fight)

 

Trigger locks can be of some help. They are inexpensive, easy to install, and provide some level of safety. They are much better than relying on "hiding" your weapon or doing nothing at all, but don't rely on them exclusively. You don't want to use them on loaded weapons, and most of them don't prevent weapons from being loaded. If you rely on them exclusively, what will happen when your child finds the key? Also bear in mind that keys are too hard to manipulate in the dark, or under stress. But trigger locks can be effective with small children, and in conjunction with other safety measures.

 

Similarly, a lockbox or gun cabinet can be helpful; just beware of relying on them exclusively. They can be opened by a 12-year-old using simple, household tools (again, see "Keeping the Piece" below).

 

The most secure way to store firearms is no doubt a safe. Borrowing liberally from Henry Schaffer's excellent summary "Gunsafes" (XIII.B.1.a), gun safes are made of fairly heavy gauge steel, with special attention paid to hinges, multi-point locking devices, pry-resistance, hard-to-defeat locks, and weight. The low end of the safe category will weigh a few hundred pounds and will cost perhaps $600 - $1,000 depending on how it is outfitted. The casual burglar with a crowbar -- or an inquisitive child -- is unlikely to be able to penetrate this type of safe. At the same time, a safe is virtually impossible to access quickly, under stress, and in the dark.

 

A $600, 250+ pound safe may be pretty close to childproof, but many people can't afford them (and/or their floors won't support them). The next step down from safes is a "gun cabinet," with prices starting at about $100. Again, using Henry's overview, these are metal cabinets, built about as strongly as an office file or stationary cabinet, with a key lock which latches the door. They can be opened with a crowbar/prybar, or with an ordinary drill, but this type of entry would show obvious damage. In this case you'd be counting on a reluctance to damage the cabinet as a deterrent. However a break-and-enter burglar who is after the VCR, jewelry (and who probably carries a crowbar) will not be deterred by this and will probably get the cabinet open in a very few minutes. In this same category should be included the neighborhood teenager-gone-bad type of criminal. Like safes, they are difficult to access quickly, under stress, and in the dark.

 

Both safes and cabinets have the drawback that you can't open them in a hurry, under stress, in the dark. Better in that respect are lockboxes. There are several good ones on the market with fast-access, push-button, combination locks that are reasonably child-resistant and easy to manipulate in the dark (again, see "Keeping the Piece" below). However, in our opinion, there is only so far you can go with "childproofing the gun." Even better is "gunproofing your children."

 

 

Gunproofing Your Children

 

"Gunproofing your children" means teaching them that guns are not toys, and teaching them firearms safety and responsibility. Nothing left to a child's discretion is fail-safe, especially where peer pressure may reign. But training your children in the basics of firearms safety gives them a better chance of escaping danger or harm should they ever encounter a gun beyond your control, a better chance than children still in the thrall of fatal curiosity, awe, and ignorance.

 

In movies and television, guns are icons of power. The good guys have them, and use them to restore right and order. Even on the old "Adam 12" TV show, these two quintessential Officer Friendly types had more gunfights in one season than most big city police do in their whole careers. Not only does the mass media present a distorted view of the frequency of firearms use, it is even worse when it comes to teaching judicious use, proper sporting use, and gun safety.

 

For small children, the first thing to teach them is the Eddie Eagle message (stop, don't touch, leave the area, tell an adult). This can be taught as early as age three or four. As they get a little older -- and after they understand and practice the Eddie Eagle rules -- teach them the basics of safe firearms handling.

 

There are four firearm safety rules taught by Jeff Cooper of the American Pistol Institute. Follow these rules and you cannot ever have a mishap. Even if you violate one of them, you are still all right; it takes multiple errors to cause an accident.

 

1.All guns are always loaded

2.Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy

3.Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target

4.Be sure of your target and what's beyond it

 

Many gun owners use the natural curiosity of their children as an opportunity to teach gun safety. At Patrick's house, for example, the children can see and handle firearms whenever they ask. We first review the Eddie Eagle rules, then the golden rules of firearms safety. Then the guns come out. Questions are often asked -- how does this part work? what does that do? If any safety rules are broken -- even inadvertently -- the guns get put away.

 

Another good thing to do early on -- and repeat from time to time -- is to take the children to a shooting range to demonstrate what a gun will do to a milk jug, liter-sized Coke, or watermelon. Children know that the people they see getting shot in movies are actors, and that after "getting shot," they later get up and go home. Shoot a water-filled milk jug with a .357 pistol or a 12-gauge shotgun. Have the child hold that (shredded) milk jug up to their chest. Help them understand that, while shooting can be lots of fun and a recreational activity they can practice into their 90s, guns are not toys; their power must be respected.

 

Also, think about using cleaning as an opportunity to teach gun safety. If you try to 'hide' your gun cleaning by always doing it after the children go to bed, you will only increase their curiosity (they'll eventually catch you anyway). Don't do things that encourage them to get into the guns when you're not around. I almost always clean my guns when the children are around, and they often ask to help. Here's another chance to go over the Eddie Eagle rules, the golden rules of safety, and to respond to their natural curiosity (also a way for mother or father to get some free help). Allowing the children to assist in such a 'grown up' activity may also increase their general maturity level, build pride in competence, and improve general safety awareness and practice. A note of caution though ... if your children help with gun cleaning, make sure they wash their hands with soap afterwards. While most of what you clean up is powder residue, be especially careful about the small amounts of lead that might be cleaned out (for more on lead hazards, and prudent measures, see "XIII.A.5. Hazards of Lead Exposure".

 

 

Additional Resources

 

Here are some sources of additional information.

 

The Eddie Eagle program is a set of non-political gun safety materials designed specifically for children. The materials includes coloring books, posters, videos, as well as instructors materials. They are available in three levels (pre-school to grade 1; grades 2-3; grades 4-6) in both English and Spanish. For her role in developing Eddie Eagle, NRA vice president Marion Hammer received the National Safety Council's 1993 Citation for Outstanding Community Service for leadership in program development. The program has also received commendation from the American Legion's National Committee on Education, is endorsed by the Police Athletic League and is used by numerous organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. Schools, law enforcement agencies and civic groups interested in the Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program can contact the NRA at (800) 231-0752

 

Gunproof Your Children, by Massad Ayood , Police Bookshelf, 1986,

 

"Kids & Safety" (chapter 8 of Armed & Female, by Paxton Quiqley, E.F. Dutton, 1989, $4.99).

 

"Gun Safety" (chapter 16 of In the Gravest Extreme, by Massad Ayoob, Police Bookshelf, 1980)

 

Children and Guns: Sensible Solutions, by David Kopel, 1993, Independence Institute, phone: 303-279-6536, $12.00

 

"A Parent's Guide to Gun Safety," 1992, available at no charge from the National Rifle Association. Call 1-800-368-5714 and ask for the Safety and Education Division.

 

"Firearms Responsibility in the Home," available at no charge from Beretta U.S.A., Accokeek MD, phone: 301-283-2191.

 

 

 

Collection maintained by: Patrick Casey (pcasey@interart.com) and John Gunshenan (jpg@bbn.com). Last updated: 7 Aug 95

 

Copyright 1995, Patrick Casey and John Gunshenan. Use and copying of this information are permitted as long as (1) no fees or compensation are charged for use, copies or access to this information, and (2) this copyright notice is included intact.