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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.

The Cold Hard Facts

Given these results, it's clear that while teaching your child the gun-safety commandment ("Stop, don't touch, leave the area, go tell an adult") is important, you can't stop there. The key to protecting your kids -- as young as preschoolers -- is to practice these rules in a realistic setting, say experts. Here's how:

* Role-play with an unloaded gun or a realistic toy gun. Run through various scenarios in different rooms in your home. For instance, put the gun in your bedroom, then in your living room, and ask your child to show you what she'd do if she found it there.

* Test her, once you're confident she understands what to do if she finds a gun. Place it in a room your child is about to enter and wait in a different room to see what she does. If she comes running to you right after discovering it and tells you she found it, great. But if you see that she's touched it without telling you about it, role-play and test her again.

* Repeat this safety training monthly to refresh what she's learned, whether you're certain she'll do the right thing in a real-life situation or not.

* Ask other parents or caregivers if they have guns in their home before you let your child play there. If they do, you have a right to know if the fire-arms are stored unloaded and in a locked area.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that no guns, even ones that are locked and unloaded, should be kept in a place where children live or play. But that's extreme and unrealistic in the U.S.

So where does that leave gun-owning parents? "It's essential to make sure all firearms are safely locked," says Todd Smith, editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life magazine, which has been reporting on guns and gun-safety issues for more than 100 years. Smith, an avid hunter, a gun owner, and a father of two kids, ages 10 and 7, advises parents to:

* Keep firearms unloaded and in a gun safe.

* Store ammunition separately from the firearms, in another locked storage cabinet or safe.

* Refrain from giving others the combination to the safe. If you must, limit it to your spouse or a close friend or relative.

* Take the mystery out of guns by showing them to your child, if he expresses interest. Let him touch an unloaded gun in your presence, or even take him to a shooting range if he's 5 or older. If he only knows about guns as secret objects of power hidden in your closet, he'll find them more enticing to seek out when you're not around.

Liam is now 6, and though my recurrent pre-playdate interrogations about what he'd do if he found a gun are inevitably met with rolled eyes and a grunt or two, he always gives me the answer I want to hear: "I'd walk away and tell an adult." Would he? I hope I never have to find out.

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