If you’re like most parents, you’re concerned about your child’s safety. You try to keep your children away from people who might harm them and from places that are unsavory and unsafe. You carefully teach them safety rules, such as how to cross the street, and you supervise them in risky situations, like playing around water, fire and stoves.
As a parent, it’s your job to gradually prepare your kids to deal with more and more of the outside world and the problems that come along with growing up. Unfortunately, no matter how well you explain unsafe situations to your children, particularly young children, they’re still vulnerable to danger.
Please remember, adults protect children; children don’t protect themselves. The full burden of keeping young children away from guns lies with the adults supervising them, whether it’s Mom, Dad, Mr. Smith next door, Grandpa or Aunt Mary.
The least-talked-about concern parents must confront today is safety from guns. In his book PROTECTING THE GIFT, Gavin De Becker reveals some harsh statistics:
- Every day about 75 American children are shot. Most recover—15 do not.
- Twenty thousand guns enter the mainstream of commerce each day.
- The chance of a child being shot is 250 times greater than the chance of a child being abducted by a stranger.
- The likelihood is great that your child will play in the homes of people who own guns.
Read on to learn how to protect your child from guns, whether in your own house or in the homes of friends and relatives.
Would you ever think of asking the parents of your child’s best friend if they have a gun in their house?
It’s something you ought to know, because there’s a gun in two out of every five American households. And in 20 percent of those households, the guns are kept unlocked and loaded, according to a 1997 U.S. Justice Department report.
Firearms are the fourth leading cause of accidental deaths among children ages 5-14, according to the Justice Department. When there’s a gun in the home, there’s a greater risk of a child being shot by himself, his friends, or a family member than being injured by an intruder.
So, from now on, when you drop off your child at a friend’s house to play, it’s your job to ask if the parents own guns. Use a line something like this: “I’m one of those really nervous parents. I just have to ask . . .”
• Do you have a gun in your house?
• Where do you keep it?
• How is it secured?
• Do your children know of your gun?
• What would you do if you heard an intruder?
So what’s the best way to ask a fellow parent if their gun is safely stored and locked without insinuating they may be irresponsible? Well, there may not be one. But I’ve decided it’s worth the risk of brushing someone the wrong way to make sure my children are safe.
Somehow every parent needs to muster up the courage to tactfully ask these questions. Once you receive the answers, you can decide whether you feel comfortable leaving your child at his friend’s home. And if you’re a person who owns guns yourself, it’s your responsibility to tell the parents of the children who visit your home about your guns, and inform them how the guns are secured.
Another friend suggested putting the blame on the child instead of the household with the gun. Tell a fellow parent that your child is overly curious and doesn’t always follow the rules so it’s important to know how safely a gun and its ammunition are stored.
While 75 percent of all parents and 88 percent of gun-owning parents have told their children what to do if they find a gun, only 39 percent have ever asked another parent how they store their guns, according to a survey by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.
Warning your children about the dangers of guns and insisting they tell an adult if they ever come across one isn’t enough to keep them safe. Children’s self-control is shaky, so if they come across a gun, they may not be able to resist trying out the trigger.
You simply can’t risk it. Children don’t learn by looking; they only gain understanding by touching, trying, and experimenting. So showing kids a real gun may not satisfy their fascination. In fact, it may only entice them to sneak a peek for themselves, then imitate the gun-toting actors they’ve seen on TV.
Preschool-age children simply don’t grasp the difference between imaginative play with toy guns, or child-created guns, and the real thing. Kids won’t be able to fully comprehend that real guns are lethal and that death is permanent until they’re about 10 years old.
You wouldn’t show your kids how a bottle of Drain-O unclogs a drain and then leave the bottle laying around. You don’t naively assume that your demonstration is enough to keep your kids away from the poison. No, you rely on the government-imposed safety measures—childproof safety caps—to keep children from opening the container and poisoning themselves or someone else. And though you count on the safety cap, you may even put the poison in a locked cupboard for further protection.
Think of a gun as a lethal bottle of Drain-O—without a safety cap. If you and your children are visiting the home of a gun-owning relative or friend, ask them to please lock up the weapon. If they refuse, it’s up to you to watch your children every moment, just as you do when in a parking lot, on a balcony or around a wood-burning stove. It’s your responsibility to provide the controls your young children lack.
In our culture most children play imaginatively with guns. Even when parents discourage violent play and never buy toy guns, children are endlessly imaginative and able to turn many objects (LEGOs, Tinkertoys, carrots) into pretend guns and play with them.
Children pretending to be superheros with superpowers find satisfaction in gun play. Some children fear monsters lurking behind doors and in closets; a child may zap the beast with a finger-turned-gun. By doing so, the child takes control of the scary, albeit imaginary, situation.
Although most parents understand that gun play is normal, they still wonder just what kind of guidance is appropriate when children engage in weapons play. There are three approaches.
BAN GUN PLAY ALTOGETHER
When kids start to play war, tell them to stop and then get them interested in something else. Explain that you don’t like shooting—even pretend shooting—and why. Don’t buy toy guns, and prohibit your children from creating guns out of objects around the house.
Also, don’t allow TV programs or movies with war themes or gun violence.
With this strict approach parents must decide how to control children’s gun play when in the neighborhood, at a friend’s house and at preschool or child care.
Sometimes when war play is banished, it unfortunately becomes the forbidden childhood fruit. In some homes where gun play is entirely prohibited, kids develop an underground gun-play network, zapping and shooting silently when their parents’ backs are turned. The parents’ good intentions backfire, creating a bigger gun fascination than existed in the first place.
TAKE A LAISSEZ-FAIRE APPROACH
Let kids engage in gun play as much as they wish, and assume that this play will eventually drop out of sight. Parents who adhere to this approach don’t worry that their children will grow into a war mongers, cops, robbers or hunters when grown. Their attitude is, “I played cowboys as a kid, and I turned out okay. My kids will too.”
Raising kids today, however, is different than in past generations. Due to the prevalence of violence and guns in today’s society and the gratuitous use of weapons in the media, most parents don’t let gun play go unchecked.
COMPROMISE WITH CERTAIN RULES
Allow gun play, but set limits with one or more of the following rules:
1. NO STORE-BOUGHT TOY GUNS Never buy guns for your child, but when he makes guns with LEGOs or turns a stick or finger into a gun, allow it.
2. NO PRETEND SHOOTING OF PEOPLE OR ANIMALS If your child pretends to shoot a person or pet, stop her and make the following statement: “I don’t like you pretending to kill your friend. If you really shot someone in the head, they would die forever; it would be very sad.”
3. NO WAR PLAY INSIDE—OUTSIDE ONLY Gun play is usually raucous and grows quickly out-of-control. An “outside only rule” manages this high-pitched play without completely forbidding it.
4. NO TV SHOWS OR MOVIES THAT INVOLVE SHOOTING AND KILLING Although well-intended, this rule is extremely difficult to enforce; children would be excluded from most movies including Disney’s TARZAN and the most recent Star Wars episode.
If you are going to allow gun play, it’s wise parenting to establish some rules. Just make sure the ones you create are ones you are realistically committed to enforcing.
Whichever approach you take, be sure to teach your children about violence, injury and death that real guns cause. Cultivate empathy for victims killed by guns. When your child is engaged in gun play, pay attention and interject information while instilling your values. Lastly, when the TV is on, take time to explain when the war and violence is real, as on the news, and when it’s pretend, in shows and movies.
How to Explain Guns to A Child
It is vital that parents talk to their children about guns, but this can be a difficult conversation to have. The discussion must be age-appropriate and offer children clear instructions about avoiding guns without adult supervision.
Children are naturally curious, especially when it comes to guns. Parents should not lull themselves into a false sense of security on this matter, even if they have spoken to their children about guns.
As Judy Shaw, Director of the Injury Prevention Program at Children’s Hospital in Boston, noted, “any small child who picks up a gun . . . is going to put a finger on the trigger and click it.” All parents must take common sense steps to protect children both by talking to them about guns and by unloading and locking all guns so that a child or teen cannot access them without direct adult supervision.
Even if you do not own a gun, the odds are high that you, your child or grandchild will encounter one. Can your little one truly distinguish a toy gun from a real one. Would your child know what to do if he or she sees a firearm at a friend’s house?
Here are some basic safety guidelines to help protect both kids and their parents:
- Children need to be educated about guns and prevented from unauthorized use. Even if you don’t have a gun in your home, remember that neighbors, friends or relatives may have one in theirs.
- Take time to tell children about the dangers of playing with guns. Explain the difference between gun violence on television and the real-life consequences of firearm use. One study indicates that few young children can reliably distinguish a toy gun from a real one.
- Teach children the basic elements of gun safety and instruct them on what to do if they find or see a gun. Tell them, “Never play with guns. If you find one, leave it alone and tell a grownup.”
- Guns can be a natural curiosity for children. Repeat the “don’t play with guns” message frequently. Reinforce this by quizzing them on what they would do if they found a gun.
- Even if you don’t have children at home, involve yourself and invite others to participate in gun safety programs.
- Discuss gun safety with neighbors, friends and relatives. If they own a firearm, encourage them to make gun safety a habit.
- Every gun owner should have safety training and regular practice to help ensure that he or she knows how to store and use the firearm safely.
- Teach children the huge difference between toy guns and real guns, and between TV and reality!
- Teach children not to touch a gun and to immediately tell an adult if they see one, even if the gun is a toy. Children under age 8 cannot be expected to tell the difference between a toy gun and a real gun.
- If firearms are kept at home, they should be locked and stored where children cannot reach them. Ammunition should be locked and stored in a separate location. Trigger locks should be used.
The Access Factor
The horrifying reality is that, in spite of the fact that it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to buy a handgun or for anyone under 18 to buy a rifle or shotgun, somehow, children get their hands on firearms.
While some guns are obtained illegally, all too many are taken from the child’s own home. Many school security experts, as well as law enforcement officials, estimate that, of the firearms students bring to school, 80 percent come from their homes. Studies show that students, on the other hand, estimate that 40 percent of their peers who bring guns to school buy them on the street.
Whether or not you own a gun, chances are, at one point or another, your child could come in contact with one, even if it’s just by seeing a friend’s dad’s guns. “If no one’s telling a child what to do in a situation, they’re going to rely on their own [impulses],” says Huntington.
Huntington urges parents to educate their children about guns. “You tell your kids ‘don’t touch sharp knives, don’t get in a car with strangers.’ Why not say ‘if you see a gun, don’t touch it, leave the area, and tell an adult’?” Even if guns were totally outlawed today, there are still 240 million guns out there, and “the bad people are still going to have them.”
Keep Firearms Under Lock and Key
Keeping the firearms secure is obviously critical. However, if the kids want to hurt themselves or others, they’ll find a way to do so. In one particular case, the guns were locked up at his home, and the boy broke into his grandfather’s house and stole guns from his locked gun cabinet.
If you do have a gun in your home, it must be locked up effectively enough that your curious 10-year-old won’t get to it. [That doesn’t mean] the top shelf under your underwear.
IDLE, OR NOT SO IDLE, THREATS?
Regardless of the child’s dealings with firearms, if violence is seen or spoken of frequently in the child’s home, it can be damaging to the child’s psyche, say experts. Worst case scenario is that the child develops an affinity of his or her own, for violence. Or, at the very least, the child becomes immune to it, or thinks nothing of saying things like, “I’ll kill you,” or “I oughta shoot you.”
While it’s unfortunate that in our society, a young child may not realize what he or she is saying by threatening someone else, a student should realize his or her school will not tolerate even the most off-handed remark of this sort. “We have no way of determining if a child is seriously threatening someone, or if these are frivolous words,” says Tompkins.
Zero tolerance policies are just one step in the direction of keeping our kids safe.
POINTERS FOR SAFETY
- Listen to your child, and take his words seriously.
- Pay attention to the phrases you use in your home. Do you say, “I could have killed him” or “I was so mad, I wanted to shoot her,” without realizing the implications of those blase´ statements?
- Educate your child about guns. Remember, “if you see a gun, don’t touch it, get a grown-up, and leave the area.”
- If your child displays violent tendencies, get him or her help now. Tomorrow could be too late.
If gun safety were as simple as keeping guns out of sight, we wouldn’t need a Get Unloaded Campaign. The problem is that firearms can be found in one out of every 2 or 3 homes. Many of these guns are unlocked and about one out of ten are both unlocked and loaded. Children often know where the guns are, even when their parents believe they do not.
Preventable firearm-related deaths and injuries among children cost our society more than $3.7 billion per year.
Each year more than 100 children die and an estimated 1,500 children require emergency medical treatment for unintentional firearm-related injuries.
Children are most frequently injured by firearms when they are unsupervised and out of school. According to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, these shootings tend to occur in the late after-noon, peaking between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., during the weekend, and during the summer months and the holiday season.
Stop The Violence encourages families to use healthy communication to strengthen bonds and combat the growing epidemic of youth violence, which was recently recognized as a public health issue by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The primary focus of the Get Unloaded Campaign is to educate parents and grand-parents about the proper storage of guns, use of trigger locks, and how to prevent access by minors.
In a home where guns are kept, the degree of safety a child has rests squarely on the child’s parents. Parents who accept the responsibility to learn, practice and teach gun safety rules will ensure their child’s safety to a much greater extent than those who do not.
Parental responsibility does not end, however, when the child leaves the home. Your child could come in contact with a gun at a neighbor’s house, when playing with friends, or under other circumstances outside your home. It is critical for your child to know what to do if he or she encounters a firearm anywhere, and it is your responsibility to provide that training.
Further, why not tell the parents of your child’s friends that you are concerned about gun safety? Simply informing other parents of your concern or providing them with a copy of this pamphlet is a friendly, non-confrontational way to help safeguard your child. “I don’t know if you have any guns. I just want you to know that I want my child to be safe in your home, as your child is safe in mine!”