Joined: 18 January 2006
Recently my local paper carried the familiar headline of an accidental shooting. The tragedy involved two teenage roommates, one of whom allegedly shot the other in the head with a newly purchased shotgun he was fooling around with while the victim slept on the couch. As skeptical as experienced gun handlers might be of the odds of "accidentally" shooting someone in the head, if you've spent time with novices you know how often such events are narrowly avoided.
In addition to the shotgun, a police search of the apartment discovered the victim, eighteen years of age, owned a handgun from which the serial numbers were scratched off. Again, all too typical. A couple kids get curious about guns, and promptly buy them by whatever means available, including an apparently black market purchase. What caught my interest in this story was a comment by the victim's father, who said:
"My only real regret is not knowing about their interest in getting [a gun]. I wish I would have known . . . I just don't think a lot of people understand the volatility of a weapon, how easy it is for the thing to go off or how volatile, or how irreversible it is. It's sad that it takes a tragedy like this to learn that lesson."
With the utmost respect for this aggrieved father, it doesn't take a tragedy to learn this lesson. The statistics are readily available. For 2006, the Center for Disease Control lists 642 accidental firearms death in the United States. 102 of these victims were minors. This is far lower than the exaggerated rate of "8 children a day" claimed by some anti-gun organizations, but that's little solace to the families of the victims. These statistics are only for fatalities, not the other damaged lives.
For accidents like this one, the cause isn't malice. It's ignorance. Regardless of your stance on guns, a few facts cannot be denied: the country is filled with guns, popular culture celebrates violence, and most if not all people will encounter guns in some way in the course of their lives. Less of a fact but a statement I'd stand by is that guns are "cool;" young males in particular are drawn to them like moths to a flame. Even without the Hollywood hype and myths about guns enhancing masculinity, kids are still going to want them. In the case above, the unfortunate thing is that no one appears to have prepared these young men for their first encounter with weapons. This amounts to the same "abstinence only" approach to sex ed that most of my fellow progressives rightly decry as a dangerously ineffective program that relies on misinformation and scare tactics instead of providing information that can save a life or prevent pregnancies.
"Abstinence only" sex education has been an abysmal failure in education. Rather than educating the young and the hormonal about risks and effective protections against those risks, abstinence only education relies on shame and fear to fight off the combined influence of moonlight, daddy's car keys and hot summer nights by the lake. Unsurprisingly to those with knowledge of human sexuality, the approach doesn't work. A 2006 study revealed that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex. (Yes, that's nine-ty-five or 19 out of 20 of us, if you prefer.) My guess is those are higher rates than children admit to their parents (or parents to the children), but these rates appear to have been consistent at least since the 1950s (grandma!) When you put the prevalence of this behavior in the same room with a "See no evil, hear no evil" education program, the results are predictable: studies show the rates of unprotected sexual activity for teens in abstinence-only programs match rates for teens who get no sex education at all!
As a parent, I want my schools to do better than that in protecting my kids from AIDS and other life-altering consequences of risky behavior. Yes, protecting minors and other young people from the physical and emotional dangers of precocious sexual activity is part of a parent's responsibility. But that gives little security regarding their peer group. I can talk with my own children, but I can't sit down with my neighbor's kids to give them "the talk" they need to get from their own folks.
When most people inevitably have their first encounter with sex, they aren't expected to be experts the first time out of the gate. But with guns, you had better be. For the sake of yourself and those around you (like a roommate on the couch) you need to be an expert in safe handling from the very first time you pick one up without supervision.
Denying children direct knowledge and experience with firearms promotes a dangerous ignorance. It means that instead of learning from their parents, some kids are learning about gun safety from the worst source possible: each other. Gun avoidance programs are a good start for younger children. Especially for a kid with no family experience with firearms, the best thing to do with a gun they find is of course to leave it alone and call for an adult. Who can argue with that? But these programs are generally aimed at younger kids. When kids get older, the fascination with all things dangerous will lead some to guns, regardless of their guardians' wishes. As the report cited above about abstinence-only sex ed says, "Peer support may be protective but erodes sharply during the teen years." You can say the same thing about "eroding" fear of guns: a second grader is likely to call an adult; a ninth grader—or his friends—is more likely to think "cool" and pick it up.
While this may seem counter-intuitive to some; I would posit that the more likely a kid is to want a gun, the more important it is he knows how to handle one. This belief shared by my friend Donny Adair, who mentors at-risk youths in hunting safety and ethics in the African American Hunting Association. The young men Donny mentors learn firsthand from an adult what a gun can do, and are taught to see through the hollow machismo often attached to firearms by those with low self-image.
Unfortunately, such approaches are not universal. Public schools and many youth organizations that used to teach marksmanship and gun handling no longer do so, or face declining enrollment in their programs. As a result, respect for guns, knowledge about the positive role of guns in society, and even respect for the lives misuse use of a gun will alter are decidedly lacking for far too many of our youths. This is especially so for those who come from families with the "abstinence only" approach to raising these young people.
We of course live in a world where many activities can be fatal; including unprotected sex, swimming pools, alcohol, reckless driving and other highlights of the Hollywood lifestyle. We must talk to our children about these risks, and we need to talk to them about guns, too. Moreover, we need to teach them how to handle a tool most are likely to pick up at some point in their lives. And we need our schools to make sure everyone's children get the same message. As parents, ask your schools what they are doing to teach older students about safe gun handling, as well as avoidance. Take your children to the range, even if you aren't a regular shooter yourself. Have "the talk" about guns.
As with other aspects of growing up, realize your child is someday going to need to know how to pick up their tools without you being there to guide them.
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Joined: 24 December 2007
According to me, stricter gun control is better than a complete ban. But then again, its not just guns that kill. Weapons of choice vary.
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