Federal offices estimate there are more than 200 million firearms in the United States. Studies suggest that firearms are kept in approximately half of all households. If you have them in your home, are they safely locked away from children? Wait, don’t go. Are you sure?
I was at a friend’s house watching TV. Her father had a handgun on the coffee table and he was seated nearby. Into the room ran my friend’s 4-year-old sister, darting about on her tiny legs, ponytails bobbing, playing with her toys and doing what energetic kids usually do. Then, spying the gun on the table, she immediately ran towards it and reached for the new play thing. I jumped from my chair and headed towards her, but the father calmly brushed me off saying, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.” He allowed the little girl to examine the pistol then casually took it away. All this while my mouth hung open in utter disbelief.
I was completely appalled; it did not matter whether the gun was loaded or not. The child did not register the difference; she only knew that it was “OK” for her to play with it. I was only 16 at the time, but looking back, I should have spoken my opinion instead of worrying about whether the father would be angry at my having the audacity to tell him how to raise his child. I never went back into their house.
Gun accidents are preventable. Parents cannot blame an inanimate object for their carelessness. Many families feel firearms are essential for home protection, but parents who have guns need to realize that young children are more crafty than they think they are. I knew the contents of my parents’ bedstand when I was 3, and I knew how to stack a chair and climb onto the counter top to reach into the cupboards. My father took adequate precautions and kept his handguns secure, locked away from my older brother and me.
Of the numerous methods available to secure a firearm, the most basic are trigger locks and gun cables. They are inexpensive and are sometimes included with the sale of a handgun, requiring a key or combination to lock. Gun cables fit through the chamber of the gun so it cannot be loaded, and trigger locks enclose around the entire trigger area. Many gun owners with children use these tools for home protection, demanding a system that not only keeps their kids’ hands off the guns, but allows adults quick access to a loaded weapon, too.
Keypad-entry lockboxes such as the Minivault sold by GunVault provide a perfect compromise. A personalized code can be programmed into it, but several incorrect code entries will engage the safety, shutting off the keypad and rejecting further tampering. This type of safe also has a key lock and is portable enough to be screw mounted just about anywhere.
The ultimate in security is a heavy fireproof safe. Available in many sizes and combination/key-entry lock options, there are small safes to 500+ pound behemoths that can store a collection of long rifles. They can hold all your valuables in a fireproof environment that keeps kids’ hands away and also deters burglars.
Carl Renegar, owner of Safe House, a local business that sells safes to homes and businesses, says the best safes have internal hinges.
“Seventy to 80 percent of all safe attacks occur on safes with external hinges,” says Renegar, who can’t say enough about the importance of locking up your firearms.
“It takes more pressure to press on a pencil when you’re writing than to pull a trigger,” he says. “A lot of people say ‘it will never happen to me,’ but I’ve got customers who didn’t lock their guns up soon enough.”
Whichever method you use to store your firearms, be sure that if the device requires a key, you keep the key away from your children. Records of combination codes must also be safeguarded. No safety device is perfect, especially if not used properly. Also, keep in mind that like any product, security devices range from cheap to high quality. Ask around to find a reputable manufacturer, and remember, there is no price tag on your child’s life.
Firearm safety isn’t limited to a responsible parent locking up a gun; it also includes the mind set of the child. Educating children about firearm safety is the key to an accident-free environment.
“Firearms are abundant here in Tennessee; it’s been a part of life for generations. Families go hunting or have a gun in the house, so it’s important that parents start teaching their kids early,” says Susan Sobel, assistant professor of psychology at MTSU. “It can vary from child to child, depending on how they’re raised, but children can learn right from wrong as early as 3 years old.”
Schools confront the issue of firearm safety in different ways. Children learn to not touch the gun, leave the area and tell an adult in the “Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program” created by the National Rifle Association (NRA). This program travels to schools, organizations and camps nationwide. Also, many schools have programs where a student can call in anonymously, to report if a student has brought a gun onto school grounds.
Nashville’s radio station, 107.5 “The River,” created this pledge for children to follow: “If I hear or know of anything that could potentially hurt anyone in school, I pledge to let someone know, or call 557-AGUN.” Though Davidson County schools have been using this program, like Williamson and Rutherford counties, talking to children directly about guns is not part of the curriculum. Parents must take responsibility for delivering the message of gun safety themselves.
Some parents refuse their children access to toy guns. Others only allow their children to play with toy guns when they are old enough to understand the difference between toys and the real thing. Some parents even make their children follow the same rules a person with a real gun would.
Other families – especially among those who own guns – believe in teaching firearm safety as soon as children are old enough to learn. Many even take their older children to the firing range to have them experience firsthand what a gun can do. Parents who do this believe it eliminates dangerous curiosity and provides the basis for good safety habits.
“I was raised in urban settings, and guns played a successful role as part of our home defense on more than one occasion,” says E. Christopher Gresham, a 36-year-old engineer who lives in Franklin with his wife and 4-year-old daughter. “I hope my daughter never experiences that. What few weapons I have in the house are constantly secured in a gun safe and unlocked only by myself.
“At age 2, we began discussing gun safety with my daughter, mostly because we know that some people are not as diligent (in teaching it) as we are,” continues Gresham. “The fear that she might enter someone else’s home where a gun is left unguarded is the reason for beginning so early. My daughter knows to leave the room where a gun is found and to find an adult, while never touching the gun.”
Another Nashville parent, Lonnie Wilson, believes that clear communication with her children will prevent them from making devastating decisions. Many parents are swift to tell their children “no” without backing it up with reasons, but a simple “no” can be insufficient for children who have a natural curiosity for things taboo. When Wilson says “never touch a gun, leave it alone,” she also clarifies why.
Having witnessed an accidental gun-related death helps her relay her experiences to her son, who is then more able to understand the “why’s” behind the “do’s and don’ts.” Good communication between parent and child can reap many benefits; children will be more likely to respect a parent’s rules and open lines of communication make it more comfortable for parents and children to discuss other serious topics, too.
FANTASY AND REALITY
Children are known for imitating what they see, whether they mimic parents, the television, video games or friends. It is nearly impossible to shield children completely from a world full of violence; as the authority in the family unit, parents have the power to teach that the violence kids see on TV or in video games is not acceptable behavior for real-life. And parents must also practice what they preach: if a child sees Dad hit Mom, the child may very well assimilate this as appropriate behavior. As the child grows – especially through the tumultuous teenage years – violence with the fists can escalate to using other weapons.
“Children can make bad decisions because they were unable to communicate with their parents to learn how to make the right decisions, and as a result, they lack empathy for others,” says Sobel.
When children learn that they have the power to make decisions of their own, parental guidance is the best back-up for helping kids to make those decisions If the lines of communication are open in the household, children will come to parents for advice.
Children and guns co-exist in many Middle Tennessee households. It’s up to parents and educators to provide adequate safety measures and continuing education as children mature.
Betty Wendt is a graphic designer who uses firearms for sport and self-defense.
Observing Gun Safety at Home
Close to half of American homes have guns, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. The American Medical Association reports that 53 percent of gun owners surveyed do not keep their guns locked up. A small child with access to a loaded gun can lead to a devastating accident.
Tips for Gun Safety
- Teach your children to treat every gun as if it is loaded.
- Teach children that guns are not toys. If your children see another child playing with one, they should leave the area immediately and tell an adult.
- Should your children or teens want to learn how to use a gun, teach them proper safety skills or enroll them in a gun safety class.
- Other parents may not be as diligent in teaching safety habits to their children. If your kids are visiting a friend’s house, ask the parents if they have guns and if they are safely stored.
- Talk to your children about alternative ways to solve problems without violence.
- Watch your children’s behavior: if they show signs of depression or constant aggression and violence, get them professional help.