The Cornered Cat

“Mom, can I see your gun?”

The preschooler standing at my elbow was far from being a perfect child. Just that morning, I’d caught him standing ankle-deep in suds while pouring the last of my shampoo into the bathroom sink. Asked why in the world he’d done such a thing, the kid replied, “I just wanted to see what would happen.”

And now this same kid wanted to “just see” what would happen if he asked to see my gun.

So I handed it to him.

Oh, I checked and double checked that it was unloaded first. I made sure he knew that the gun had to stay pointed safely toward the brick fireplace while he handled it. And I stayed right there with him while he satisfied his curiosity for what seemed like the four hundred and twenty-seventh time that week. But yes, I did hand a real firearm to my energetic and inquisitive preschooler.

A few minutes later he said, “Thanks,” and handed the gun back to me — carefully keeping it pointed toward the fireplace, and not toward either one of us. Then he disappeared into the next room (probably to go find out what would happen if he put his brother’s favorite teddy bear into the fish tank), and I returned the handgun to its safe storage area.

One of the first things any new mother learns is that children are very curious. It’s how they learn about the world. When they are babies, they put things into their mouths to explore the texture and taste. As toddlers, they grab whatever catches their attention and they wander through the house looking for things they haven’t seen before. As soon as they are able to talk, they bury their parents under a deluge of unnerving questions about embarrassing subjects — usually loudly, and in the middle of the grocery store. Kids want to know about the world around them.

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Firearms Rules for Kids
  1. If you see a gun, STOP!
  2. Don’t touch it.
  3. Leave the area.
  4. Tell an adult.

After the above rules have been learned and understood, you can add two more:

  1. If you see a gun that you really, really, really want to touch, STOP. Don’t touch it. Leave the area and ASK an adult if you may safely handle it.
  2. If you see a gun and don’t know whether it’s a real gun or just a toy, treat it like it’s a real gun.

Adapted and expanded from the NRA’s Eddie Eagle materials. Children should be taught rules 1-4 beginning as soon as they are old enough to talk. Rules 5-6 should be added as soon as the child understands and can repeat the earlier rules.

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Denying this childlike curiosity seldom works for very long. If their questions aren’t answered in safe venues, many children will turn to their peer group for answers. Or they will simply explore on their own, sometimes with disastrous consequences. As a child, I once came near to burning down a neighbor’s house, not from any sort of evil intent, but simply because no one had ever told me what could happen if I threw a blanket over a lamp. Because kids don’t already know what can happen, either from experience or from careful instruction, they sometimes do things that fly in the face of all common sense. And some of them die from accidents that could have been prevented — if only they’d known.

No matter how you look at it, kids and firearms is a thorny topic. There are people who don’t believe it is possible to safely own firearms while there are children in the home. There are parents who erroneously believe their kids would never, ever touch a gun and others who quite accurately suspect that their kids would play cops ‘n robbers with a loaded .22 if given half a chance. And there are families who won’t allow their children to play with yours if they even suspect anyone in your family owns a firearm.

So what is a parent to do?

I’ll tell you what I have done, but I’ll also tell you quite frankly that whatever you do is your own responsibility. You are the one who will have to live with whatever choices you make.

When our children were too young to talk, my husband and I simply kept our firearms locked up, as indeed they still are. But as the children got old enough to ask questions, explore, and get into things, we realized we needed another layer of safety between our children and our firearms. Thus we began teaching our children how to be safe around firearms.

It is my belief that any child who has his curiosity satisfied in safe ways is far less likely to look for ways to satisfy it that aren’t so safe. If he has permission to handle mom’s handgun while she is standing right there watching him and keeping him from doing something stupid, he is less likely to go looking for the gun when she is not around to protect him. When my energetic toddler asked me if he could handle my handgun, he was checking two things: he was finding out what it felt like to touch, handle, and hold a real gun. And he was finding out whether I really meant it when I said he could hold it any time he asked.

When I needed to clean my firearms, the boys were often right there “helping” me. Wearing latex or nitrile gloves, they got their little hands into the works by handing me rags, putting together the cleaning rods, or holding the bore light while I checked the barrel. I would use these opportunities to talk about how guns work and why following the safety rules with them is so very important.

There came a day when simply holding the unloaded gun with it pointed in a safe direction wasn’t enough. Sooner or later, each child asked if he could load and fire the gun. This age comes earlier to some children than to others, but if a child has been allowed to safely handle his parents’ firearms at home, it would be surprising if he doesn’t ask to go to the range himself by age six.

For the first and every subsequent trip to the range, I always made sure my children were wearing good safety equipment: safety glasses, brimmed hats, and of course good ear protection.

With smaller children, it is sometimes a good idea to double up on hearing protection and give them both plugs and muffs. If a child’s ear canals are still too small to accept adult-sized ear plugs, the plugs can be cut in half lengthwise without difficulty; just make sure the plug is still large enough to do the task. Several companies offer child-sized ear muffs. We’ve been satisfied with Peltor Junior muffs but there are plenty of others on the market.

Because children’s protective eyewear can be difficult to find, some parents put adult-sized glasses on their children at the range. This isn’t a good solution, because it usually leaves a big gap between the child’s face and his glasses, making it far more likely that brass will get caught and held next to his skin. Even if the child’s glasses fit properly, do not neglect the brimmed hat, which can prevent this occurrence.

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The Four Rules
  1. All guns are always loaded.
  2. Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target (and you have made the decision to shoot).
  4. Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

Even young children can learn to follow these four safety rules. Kids should be taught these rules before going to the range for the first time.

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Before going to the range, kids should have some idea what to expect. They should be familiar with the Firearms Rules for Kids, and with the Four Cardinal Rules of Gun Safety (see sidebar.) They should also understand that wearing protective gear and following the safety rules are non-negotiable requirements for being allowed the privilege of firing a real gun.

Ideally, the first trip to the range should happen at a time when the range is not crowded. Outdoor ranges are much less stressful for the first outing than are indoor ones. Since communicating over the noise and through the hearing muffs can be difficult, it’s a good idea to prepare the child beforehand by talking about some of the things that might happen and what you plan to do about it if they do.

If possible, the child’s first shot should be fired from an appropriately sized rifle chambered in .22lr. Child-sized firearms such as the Davey Crickett or Chipmunk rifle are good bets. For slightly older children, there are a lot of youth rifles on the market. Look for a bolt or lever action rifle with iron sights. It is not necessary for a child to learn to shoot with a scoped firearm.

Since we own handguns, my children wanted to shoot handguns, too. It is more difficult to teach muzzle control with a handgun than it is with a rifle, but it can be done. Again, the ideal learning gun is chambered for .22lr. In no case should the firearm be loaded with more than one shot at a time, and a responsible adult should always be within arm’s reach to prevent mishaps.

The first outing should be very short, just long enough to allow the child to satisfy his curiosity about firing a gun. For some kids, that may mean just a couple of rounds. Other kids are more adventurous, and will want to keep firing until they have exhausted a box of ammunition. The child will remember your trip to the range more fondly if it ends as soon as his attention first begins to wander. For safety reasons, too, it is best to pack up and depart while the child’s interest is still focused upon what you are doing.

So that is what we have done. We’ve kept our guns locked up, but we have also taken steps to satisfy our children’s curiosity about firearms.

Is the plan working? I think it is. One day I made a bad mistake that could have been very serious. A friend of ours had just come from the range, and offered to take the kids and me to town on a quick errand. I thanked him and told my three youngest boys — then ages 6, 7, and 8 — to go hop into the car while I grabbed my purse. Meanwhile our friend stepped into the house to use the restroom, so the boys were by themselves when they discovered our friend’s open range bag in the back seat.

Six-year-old Timothy was the first to spot the gun, and said, “Stop! Don’t get in! You guys, there’s a gun back here.”

Jonathan, our seven-year-old skeptic, disagreed. “I don’t think that’s a real gun. Mom wouldn’t have sent us out here if it was real.”

Eight-year-old David countered, “Don’t you remember? If we don’t know if it’s real or not, we gotta act like it’s real.”

All three of them came running back into the house, with Timothy in the lead. “Mom! We didn’t touch it!”

Would they have responded so well to temptation if they hadn’t already had their curiosity satisfied by being allowed to freely examine and hold my firearms while I was right there to prevent any harm? I wonder.