Gun-Proofing Children

On May 9 -- Mother’s Day -- the “anti-gun” Million Mom March will gather on the West Lawn in D.C.

Meanwhile, the pro-gun Second Amendment Freedoms for Everyone (SAFER) will rally nearby. Both organizations claim to speak against gun violence and for children’s safety. Yet each espouses diametrically opposed positions on gun legislation.

A specific piece of legislation will be the focus of debate this year. Title XI of the Federal Violent Crime Control Act of 1994, which banned “assault weapons,” is due to expire in September. But the matter that is fundamentally at issue runs much deeper than any one piece of legislation. The basic question is whether private gun ownership is a constitutional and individual right, or a reckless practice that endangers society and children.

The symbolism of raising that question on Mother’s Day is clear. Each group is asking mothers to fulfill an obligation of every parent: to protect their children. The sincerity and passion on both sides is palpable but the pro-gun arguments are particularly compelling.      

For one thing, eliminating guns from society is not feasible. This is not merely because gun ownership is so widespread or because Second Amendment arguments for gun ownership are unlikely to be defeated in the near future. It is because guns, if illegal, would thrive on the black market, with only law-abiding citizens deprived of ownership. Arguably, this would give criminals an advantage and, so, make society more dangerous. Owning a gun may be one of the best protections against violence that a mother can offer her family.      

How effective is that protection? Gun statistics are notorious for their wild variations and the political uses around which they are skewed. The controversial 1998 book “More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws” by John R. Lott Jr. documents many of its sources and, so, invites the skeptical reader to check its accuracy. Lott uses FBI data to argue that violent crime has declined significantly in states that have adopted “shall issue” laws. (Sometimes called “presumptive right-to-carry laws,” they allow anyone who meets specific criteria to become licensed.)      

Lott argues against the high gun-death in children figures offered by groups such as the MMM. He claims that gun “accidents take the lives of 200 children 14 years of age and under” each year, with children being “14.5 times more likely to die from car accidents.”     

But, in at least one sense the statistics do not matter. Even a single death is too many. That’s why mothers who choose to own a gun have an obligation to teach their children to respect that weapon as a useful and potentially dangerous tool.

Millions of parents own guns. They cannot assume that their children will not find and play with a weapon hidden in a nightstand drawer or on the closet’s top shelf. Children will usually find anything that is hidden from them. This may be especially true of guns -- kids see them on television and tend to be curious about them. Admonishing your children to “Don’t Touch” does not provide effective protection; indeed, it may make the gun more attractive.       

Just as parents must teach their children to use matches or the Internet safely, so too should they provide instruction on any gun in the house.      

Gun safety experts advise starting with the manual. Review it with your child, and demonstrate how the controls work on the unloaded weapon. Take away the gun’s alluring mystery.

Experts also advise parents to teach their children to respect the weapon. For example, they advise allowing access to the gun, but only under adult supervision.

Most instruction will be little more than common sense. Experts say children should be taught to assume that every gun is loaded. At an appropriate age, they should be taught how to check this. 

Use a good locking device. Most experts recommend storing guns unloaded and in a locked case.

Children should also be taught never to point the barrel of a gun at anything that isn't being targeted, and to keep their fingers off the trigger until the gun is ready to shoot. When they reach an appropriate age to engage in supervised target practice at a range, children should check out what is immediately to either side of and beyond their targets.

The National Rifle Association offers a program called Eddie Eagle, which teaches a four-step approach to children, “If you see a gun: STOP! Don't Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult.”      

But don't leave the entire responsibility to your child. Parents who do not own a gun should assume that their children will encounter a weapon at some point, perhaps in the house of a friend or a relative. The ASK Campaign instructs parents to always ask if a gun is kept in the home you are visiting or sending your child to play in. The ASK petition advises: “Over 40 percent of homes with children have a gun. Half of those guns are left unlocked and loaded. Is there a gun where your child plays? ASK.” National Ask Day is June 20. Be polite ... but do ask.

On Mother’s Day, both anti-gun protesters and pro-gun advocates will be attempting to answer the question, “What’s a mother to do?” Gun expert and mother Sunni Maravillosa answers, “You can't childproof your gun. Instead, gun-proof your children.”

Wendy McElroy is the editor of and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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