It goes without saying, or at least parents assume it should, that little fingers should never wrap themselves around a real firearm. Just in case it doesn't, be sure to tell them anyway: If you come across a gun, don't ever touch it, don't ever play with it; run and get an adult. Yet time and time again, there are children who ignore such warnings. Should they happen across a gun, they just can't help themselves...they feel a compulsive need to explore it. And at least part of this is our fault.
As a society, we must own up to the fact that we live in a gun-crazed culture; one where the use and allure of firearms is talked up, romanticized, fictionalized, and broadcast into our homes on an everyday basis. It's not just on TV, either. Many kids have parents who proudly display their gun-toting ways, not to mention older brothers, uncles, and other adult friends. Most adults who own them treat guns as a status symbol of power and authority, further adding to the allure. Then, of course, there are fools who show up outside town-hall meetings carrying assault rifles. In the midst of such displays, what message is a kid to receive?
When children are surrounded by this gun-crazed romanticism with firearms, the lure of a gun can become simply irresistible. It's a classic one-two punch of psychology. We talk guns up and romanticize their power and significance, while simultaneously turning around and telling children not to touch. There are two surefire ingredients to use to get a child interested in something: 1) Tell them they can't have it, 2) In everything that surrounds them, send a message about how wonderful and powerful that thing which they can't have is.
Some die-hard gun advocates would say the solution to this is of course to provide children with ways for safe gun usage so that they don't feel a compulsion to experiment. Yet this tends to backfire as well, leading to overconfidence and the likelihood that kids will handle a gun when they shouldn't, or show off their gun skills with a friend, who also might use it irresponsibly. Not to mention that since gun accidents commonly occur through everyday use, ANY exposure to a gun increases a child's risk of dying and lowers their overall safety, and that of the kids around them. The problem is not the restriction; kids can handle this when the danger is clearly explained to them. It's the romanticism that goes along with it.
Not only is this romanticism unhealthy, it's flat out wrong. The cold hard facts don't lie, and they reveal that a person is around 60 times more likely to use their gun in a tragic manner (murder, suicide, accidental shooting, etc.) than they are to use it for a legal purpose. When you further take police-officer statistics out of the equation and focus on true life or death situations as opposed to simply "legal use" (many states allow the use of a firearm against any felony, regardless of whether a person is actually in danger at the time) and the situation gets even bleaker. In terms of legitimate self-defense, the odds shoot up to at least several hundred to one that a gun will be used tragically rather than defensively. If you own a gun for self-defense, you own a gun for the wrong reasons, and your family is in more danger, not less, on account of your gun ownership.
Then there are the movies. Movies aren't just unrealistic in terms of the obviously dubious action involved, but in terms of the end result of all the gun play depicted in them. In real life, when guns get drawn, their shooters are every bit as likely to hit an innocent civilian as they are their intended target. Yet in movies and drama shows alike, hundreds of rounds can be fired off without a single innocent child going down in the process. You see people diving behind cars in the process of shooting at their target while sideways and off-balance in mid air...a shot that in real life even a professional marksman would find virtually impossible. Yet this sort of acrobatic marksmanship is quite common on TV, and it gives kids a fantasy-land mentality about how easy gun use really is. Just point and shoot, and the bullet hits the bad guy. This portrayal couldn't be farther from the truth.
As is always the case, parenting plays a crucial role. We're not an organization that advocates a prudish approach of hiding your kids from any media exposure that might be disagreeable. Violent media exposure in children should be limited wherever parents can, but it's also not as though letting your kids watch that action movie they're dying to see is destined to do them any harm. But by golly, never let such scenes in a movie or television show go by unchallenged. Television offers numerous examples of brute violence and unrealistic ideals, but this also means it provides a lot of wonderful opportunities for discussion.
So the next time your family is watching Mr. Hero do a triple back flip off a high-rise building while catching a gun out of mid-air and miraculously firing off a shot that hits the bad guy square in the chest, take a little time afterwards to talk about what actually happens when guns get drawn. Television can be a wonderful teaching tool, so long as parents use it. No matter how ridiculous it’s content, it always provides opportunities for conversation.
The good news is that many kids do the right thing, so it's not as though talking to your kids about guns is a lost cause. Far from it. For every child who brings a gun to class, there's often a friend he's showing it to who runs off and tells the teacher. Kids tend to do the right thing when parents are vigilant in safety. We just need a little more talk...not only about not touching guns, but also talk to combat the romanticism and high regards in which guns are elevated to in our culture.
*For more info on some of the talking points within this post, look for our upcoming publication, 'Guns for Protection?' scheduled to be released in the next month or two.
1. Hahn, R.A. et al., "First reports evaluating the effectiveness of strategies for preventing violence: Early childhood home visitation." Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, V. 52, No. RR-14, Oct. 3, 2003