The Cornered Cat

If the question of young children and firearms is problematic, the issues surrounding teenagers and guns are even more thorny. When is a kid old enough to be given the combination to the safe? What should a babysitter do if the youngsters in her care stumble across a gun? How can a family deal with their children’s friends, and with firearms which may — or may not — be accessible to kids in the friends’ homes?

Someone told me, years ago, that guilt is the biggest occupational hazard of being a mom. That sounds about right. No matter what you choose to teach your children about guns, no matter how you choose to deal with the questions that arise as the kids grow up, if something goes wrong, you’ll torment yourself for years wondering what you should have done differently.

I’m not going to regale you with tales of the things that can go wrong. We’ve all heard the stories — a violent criminal breaks in while a teenage girl is babysitting, and Bad Things happen because the guns are locked up and she cannot defend herself or the younger kids. Or a teenage girl commits suicide with her parents’ bedside revolver. Or a teenage boy uses a shotgun to successfully defend himself from a home intruder — then gets arrested for homicide. Or a group of kids, again without adult supervision, starts playing around, and one kid shoots another while showing off with a gun that wasn’t locked away in the safe. There’s no end to the coulda-woulda-shoulda’s that follow such tragedies, but the lessons are sometimes contradictory and often confusing. 1

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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.
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When is a young adult old enough to be given access to the family firearms? Absent state law to the contrary, there really is no hard and fast rule. Some young teenagers are already becoming competent, adult human beings, while others seem destined to remain children for a long time to come. Some become mature enough to handle firearms without direct adult supervision by the age of 14 or 15, while others cannot be trusted not to do something foolish until they are legal adults. And sadly, some folks never do learn how to handle the responsibility of a loaded firearm.

But let us first talk about the law. There are literally thousands of federal, state, and local laws which regulate the purchase, sale, possession and transportation of firearms in the United States. Many of these regulations impose greater restrictions upon young people. Although parents can generally choose whether to allow their own teenage children to use firearms in controlled settings, there may be a law in your area which overrides parental discretion.

Because there are so many jurisdictions with varying legal requirements, there is no way a short article like this can address the legal question adequately. Even if space weren’t a problem, I am not a lawyer and I don’t give legal advice. However, it is not difficult to discover your local laws yourself. Many states and municipalities have placed their laws on the web (see the Legal Resources page for more about that). You can also look for a copy of the laws at your local public library or county courthouse. If all else fails, you can call your local District Attorney for an explanation of the law.

In many jurisdictions it is legal for you as the parent to allow your teenage children to have access to firearms for the purpose of self defense when you are not home. But should you? Only you and your family can answer that question.

Teenagers have often developed an adult ability to reason, but it takes a lot of living to develop of good sense of judgment. Because of this, be very wary of any plan that relies on youngsters to exercise adult discretion. If you do choose to give your kids the combination to the safe, be sure they know the basic laws of self-defense: retreat if you can, hide if you are able, shoot only if you must. And never, ever shoot someone who is running away. (See the articles titled Ability, Opportunity, Jeopardy and Legal Myths for more information about when it is legally permissible to use deadly force to defend yourself.)

You may think this entire idea is, well, nuts. Why would any sane parent allow an underage minor to have access to a deadly weapon? Two reasons spring quickly to mind.

First, many competent adults concede that access to a gun is an important part of their own self-defense plans, especially at home. But a teenager left home alone faces the same risk of home invasion that an adult does, and the teenager is less likely to have other defense skills.

Second (and perhaps more important in the long run), the basic goal of parenthood is to work yourself out of a job. As your kids get older, it becomes more and more important that they are equipped to take care of themselves when you are not there to supervise. After all, they will soon be entirely responsible for their own lives.

In my opinion, whether the guns are accessible or not, any child who is left in the house without adults present should be responsible enough to be around a loaded weapon without doing something stupid with it. If the child is not responsible enough to be trusted with every object in the house, he is not responsible enough to be left home alone — no matter where his family’s firearms are stored, and no matter how old he might be. Particularly if there is some issue that would prevent a parent from trusting him with access to a gun (severe depression comes to mind, or anger issues, or a problem with drugs or alcohol), it is not wise to leave him unsupervised. Firearms are not the only dangerous object in anyone’s home.

For safety’s sake, I believe any gun which is not under the conscious control of a responsible person should be locked away in a good safe. Even in a home without young children, it isn’t a good idea to leave expensive and dangerous toys lying around where a casual visitor can see — and perhaps steal — them. Nor do you want to risk having your otherwise responsible teen succumb to peer pressure from less-responsible friends.

Not everyone agrees with this. Some families without young children may choose to have their firearms easily accessible whenever someone is home, locking the guns in the safe only when the family leaves the house.

“Since my sons became teenagers and responsible gun handlers (and gun owners) I have kept guns throughout the house, including in their bedrooms. To do this, I gave up allowing the boys to have any company over unless Mom or I were at home,” says Scott Gatlin, a lead instructor at Tactical Response in Tennessee.

Indeed, teenage friends can be a special problem. As our older boys have headed into the teen years, my husband and I have often discussed “What if…” questions with them. We ask them questions such as, “What would you do if your best friend wanted to get out his parents’ gun? What would you say? What would you do? What if he called you a wimp because you told him you didn’t want to fiddle with that gun?”

Rules for Friends’ Houses

  • If a friend offers to let you look at his parents’ guns, get an adult’s permission first.
  • If permission is given, follow the Four Rules. If anyone (including the adult) breaks the Four Rules, make an excuse to leave. Don’t stick around and lecture. Just get your personal and very precious body out of the area.
  • If your friend offers to show you a gun and there isn’t an adult around, deflect him from the idea if you can. Don’t argue with him, don’t confront him, and don’t get excited. Just think of something better to do and suggest it, or if you can’t do that, then try to sound bored when you say, “Maybe later.”
  • If your friend gets the gun out anyway, make an excuse and get out of there. Don’t confront, don’t argue, don’t preach. Don’t try to talk your friend into putting the gun away. Leave as quickly as possible.

During those conversations, my kids and I realized that the biggest danger they would face from friends would be if the other kid was showing off or had something to prove. So we decided that maybe the best thing to do would be to play it cool. Rather than lecturing the friend about gun safety, the basic message to get across is, “That’s a boring idea. Let’s do something else.” Indeed, one of my kids had an opportunity to put that to the test one day last summer, and it worked like a charm. The other kid decided not to get into his dad’s guns after all, my son told me with some relief. He was proud of handling a difficult situation himself.

When my kids were little, I had similar conversations with our regular babysitter, a girl who became like a daughter to me during those years. One day I asked her, “What would you do if you were babysitting somewhere and a three year old came out with his dad’s gun?”

She laughed, “You guys lock yours up.” I pointed out that we weren’t the only family she babysat for. Obviously as the responsible person in charge, a babysitter cannot just run away from a situation like that. But what should she do?

We decided that maybe the smartest thing would be to calmly but firmly tell the child to put down the gun. Then we talked about what a sitter should do with a loaded gun. She won’t necessarily know how to safely unload that particular firearm, so it may not be a good idea for her to try. But of course she knows the basic safety rules which apply to all guns — keep it pointed in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger — so she could safely pick up the unfamiliar gun and put it behind a locked bathroom door. Then she could call the parents to come home and put it away properly.

If talking about gun laws in detail would take hundreds of pages, it would take thousands of pages to discuss every possible situation a teenager might face. The truth is that every family is different, every teenager is different, and every neighborhood is different. You are the one who best knows your children and their friends, but you cannot possibly foresee every situation the kids might face. As parents, I think the best we can hope for is to give our kids some basic blueprints for how to solve such problems themselves. And the best way to do that is to talk to them.

One important principle I have taught my older kids is that no one ever outgrows the Four Rules. That means they always need to obey those rules themselves, and that if they ever see anyone — child, teenager, or adult — handling a gun in an unsafe manner, they should leave the area as quickly as possible.

The easiest and best way to teach anyone firearms safety is simply to take them to the range. Handling a real gun is perhaps the most convincing way to instill respect for what a gun can do. Kids can be a real joy on the firing line, because their enthusiasm is so contagious. And it is surprising how well even a pre-adolescent can shoot when she has had good instruction.

In August of last year, I was with some friends at a GSSF match in Shelton, Washington. Among the crowd was McKenzie Gunns, a 10-year-old girl shooting her very first match. Although she shot her dad’s Glock at the match, young McKenzie has a handgun of her own, a personalized Kahr E9 with purple anodizing and a matching purple belt and holster, which she received for Christmas a couple of years ago.

“I’ve been shooting since I was four years old,” McKenzie told me later. “The best part is to be able to shoot better than my dad sometimes.” I was privileged to watch her do so that day in August. After the match, several people were standing around talking when Glock employee Chris Edwards challenged the group to shoot the then-new Glock 37 (.45 GAP) at a steel gong some 200 yards downrange. McKenzie and her father, Heath Gunns, were among those who took up the challenge. Heath fired several rounds without hitting the gong, but McKenzie hit it on her second shot. Her smile lit up the range.

McKenzie’s mom, Brady Gunns, talked with me later about the issues surrounding older kids and guns. “It is so different with each and every kid. Some kids just scare me to death, but with McKenzie I just don’t have that same fear. She knows how to handle the guns and she always follows the safety rules. I do think kids have got to have confidence that if they ask [to handle a gun] the answer is yes. They’ve got to know they’ll get to do it if they are willing to follow the rules.”

That makes sense to me. A child who knows she can always take the gun to the range and fire it without getting in trouble is going to find it a lot less tempting to break the safety rules. When kids are very small, it makes good sense to keep guns continuously locked up and away from curious little hands. As they grow, it’s a good idea to disarm their curiosity by taking kids to the range and teaching them what a gun can do. And as they hit the teenage years, it is important to talk to kids about firearms safety, and to help them decide what they will do to keep themselves safe when you aren’t around to protect them.

Conversation Starter

  • Think about a situation where your teen might have access to guns, whether intentionally or accidentally. Are the guns in your home always locked up? Is the combination to the safe written down where your teenager could find it, or where her friend might find it? Does your child visit friends’ houses who might have guns? Does your teenager babysit? Do you ever place a gun in your glove box — and if so, does your teenager ever drive that car? The possibilities will be different for every family.
  • Consider how you would want your teen to handle the situation. If your daughter babysits, for instance, what could she do if one of the kids found a firearm? How would you want your son to react if a friend brought out a revolver to show him?
  • Choose a friendly time and place to talk — maybe while you are in the car together, or some other time when there aren’t a lot of distractions. Describe the situation, and then ask what your teen would do.
  • Listen. Your child may have a solution you haven’t thought of yet.
  • Ask what-if questions: “What if he doesn’t want to put the gun down? What would you do then?” “What if your sister were there? Would you do anything different?” Point out safety concerns, but let your teen find some of the answers for herself.
  • If your teen is willing, role play some of the possible scenarios. Pretend you’re the best friend who just brought a gun into the room while no one’s parents are there, or the small child who just found his mommy’s gun while your daughter is babysitting. Let your teen practice solving the problem.
  • Be encouraging. Make sure your teen knows that you trust her and believe she is capable of finding good solutions on her own. Because you won’t be there to solve the problem for her, it is important that she has confidence that she can find a safe solution herself.


  1. All of these ‘what ifs’ came from newspaper articles I have seen within the past two years.