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California Police Sticking to Guns in Defense of Letting Kids Hold Automatic Weapons

Would you let your kid touch a machine gun?

Photos of officers from the Santa Rosa Police Department letting kids handle the department’s SWAT team weaponry at a community event has sparked a debate over how much exposure to guns is healthy for kids.

Community organizer Attila Nagy, who took the photos, told FoxNews.com that he was concerned it might encourage kids to use guns in the future.

"My main concern is for kids who handle these things. They're fascinated by them, and it makes them familiar with guns," he said.

One city councilwoman, Marsha Vas Dupre, told her local paper that she was “alarmed and devastated” by the photos.

But the police department is pushing back, saying they see nothing wrong with how they handled the event.

"The weapons are rendered safe and are unloaded. We ensure the safety of those weapons," Santa Rosa Police Capt. Gary Negri told FoxNews.com, adding that the police attend the event to build ties between the police and the community.

"Our goal is saying to people, ‘hey, don't be intimidated by the police.’ We want to break down that barrier… Once these events are over, people will be more comfortable having conversations with officers.”

Another goal, Negri said, was to educate kids about guns.

“Education and gun safety is a component of what we do… We teach kids the difference between a real gun and a Toys R' Us gun.”

But the department's response hasn't convinced everyone. One woman, Elaine Holtz, was so concerned by the SWAT team's weapons that she approached the police officer at the community event and asked what was going on.

"I would not want my child to be involved with something like that... Those guns, they should have been behind glass -- to teach the kids that you don't want to deal with this gun, because it kills." Holtz told FoxNews.com.

"I am coming from the heart of a woman, a mother, a grandmother," she added.

Despite the complaints, some gun safety experts say the police are right -- and that data shows kids who grow up with legal guns are actually less likely to get into trouble.

"A U.S. Department of Justice study showed that children introduced to firearms by their fathers had a lower rate of delinquency than children who learned about guns on the street, or even children who had no experience with guns at all," Dr. Tim Wheeling, of the group Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, told FoxNews.com.

The 1994 Justice Department report concluded: "Boys who own legal firearms... are even slightly less delinquent than nonowners of guns." Specifically, 14 percent of kids with legal firearms committed street crimes, compared to 24 percent of kids with no guns at home.

Given that, Wheeling said, the response to the police actions seemed overblown. 

"If this controlled lesson in firearms helped the kids understand that guns are not toys, some good could come from it. The knee-jerk rejection to the police outreach by locals was clearly excessive."

The pro-gun control Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence declined to comment.

Whether the police event actually helped the kids understand that guns are not toys is a matter of debate.

"It wasn't a safety thing," Nagy said, contesting the police version of the story. "That's misinformation. I was there. The gun was displayed, and kids just picked it up and played with it."

Nagy cited his photos as evidence. 

"In one of the photos I took, as Elaine Holtz was talking with the officer, you can see a little boy is reaching up to the table and grabbing a gun... the youngest kid there was maybe 5 years old."

Holtz said that when she asked the officer what was going on, he replied that they were doing "training," but that she did not find his answer convincing.

"I did not see any education going on; it looked like it was just fun," she said. "And I think we generally have a good police department. But what happened here was poorly thought out."

Police Capt. Negri said that the department is looking at “whether we want to change our tack in the future.” But for now, the police are sticking to their guns.

"Gun safety is a part of the discussions we have with the kids," Negri said. "These kids, what do they learn about guns from video games, movies and TV? A lot of the questions we get from kids are way off base... So it's helpful to have some realistic dialogue."

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