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Straight Talk About Gun Safety

The day my 3½-year-old son, Liam, picked up a plastic golf club, pointed it at his babysitter, and said, "I'm going to shoot you," stands out as one of the most startling moments of being a mom so far. My husband, Rob, and I aren't gun people; there are none in our house, toy or otherwise, and I don't think Liam had even seen any gun violence on TV. But after only a week at preschool, he knew exactly what guns were and what they were used for.

Of course lots of kids do stuff like this, and I'm not worried that my golf club-pointing toddler will become a gun-toting teen. But it made me think: With an estimated 34 percent of children in the U.S. living in a home with at least one firearm, it was time to teach Liam what to do if he came across a real gun at a playmate's house. But the question was: How?

Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that even when parents do talk to their kids about guns -- instructing them to stay away from them and immediately tell an adult if they find one -- children will still touch a firearm if they find one. In a recent study, 8- to 12-year-old boys were put alone in a room in which guns had been hidden in drawers and cabinets. Seventy-two percent discovered and handled them, even though 90 percent had received gun-safety instruction.

"It's a mistake to expect a child to stay away from a gun just because you've told him to," says Raymond Miltenberger, Ph.D., professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. After all, kids forget that they're not supposed to jump on the sofa after you've told them a million times -- why should guns be any different? Miltenberger is coauthor of a new study that evaluates programs designed to teach 4- and 5-year-olds what to do if they encounter a firearm. His research looked at the widely used National Rifle Association-sponsored Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program and another program called Behavioral Skills Training (BST), developed by the study's authors. Both programs, which consist of five 10- to 15-minute sessions, essentially teach children who see a gun to "stop, don't touch, leave the area, go tell an adult." The BST program also has participants act out those orders in role-playing situations, with instructors correcting mistakes and praising the kids for doing the right thing.

Both programs fell short: Of the children who were trained with Eddie Eagle, about half could describe the safety skills they'd learned, but few used those skills in a role-playing scenario and none used them when actually placed in a room with a gun. Of the kids trained with the BST program, most could describe the skills they'd learned and all correctly performed them when role-playing -- yet very few remembered to use them when in a room with a gun.

Dana Sullivan is a coauthor of The Essential C-Section Guide, out in June 2004.