Too Young Guns

Second Amendment advocates must understand that gun rights bring responsibilities.

Gun rights advocates gather outside the Utah Capitol during the National Gun Appreciation Day Rally Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, in Salt Lake City.

Rights bring responsibilities.

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Sadly, some news stories are never old. Twenty years ago, I began my research into children’s behavior around firearms, testing the effectiveness of a gun safety program. Hoping to find that the educational initiative would show a positive impact, I was dismayed when four- to six-year-old children played with the disarmed but real handguns. I initially shelved the study; after all, nonsignificant findings are the death knell of academic research. But then I thought about it – isn’t it important that people know that programs don’t work? I wrote it up and published it in an academic journal, dismayed though that the people who really need to know about the results – parents – would be unlikely to ever read it.

And so it was with that motivation that I said “yes” to the producers of ABC’s “20/20” when they asked if I would assist them in recreating my research. The episode, which aired in 1999, generated significant response – both positive and negative. That was the year of the Columbine shootings, the year that six school shootings took place, killing 16 and injuring 35 others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that was also the year that 467 children ages 1 to 14 lost their lives to gunfire; 88 of these deaths were unintentional and 105 were suicides. The shooters involved in unintentional deaths are almost always children as well.

[Check out editorial cartoons about gun control and gun rights.]

Fast forward 15 years. Another phone call, another request from ABC. Would I be willing to do assist them again? My first thought was, “Why again?” Children are no less curious and impulsive than they were 15 years ago and guns are no less dangerous. Two studies I had published since 1999 had supported my original findings. In the first, I demonstrated that even a week-long program was ineffective in reducing children’s play with handguns; in the second, I demonstrated that guns held a unique allure, qualitatively different from other forbidden objects. In all three studies, more than half of the children played with the guns, and most denied doing so when asked.

As I considered the request from ABC, I realized that here was a chance to reach a new generation of parents and to address the criticisms of the first show, primarily that placing guns in a toy box is confusing to children and that by doing so, children will think the guns are toys. This time, we could do what I had always wanted to do – make the scenario more realistic. So, we conducted the study again, educating the children about the dangers of guns and telling them to get help from an adult if they ever saw one. The children knew what to do – they repeated the mantra again and again. Then, a few days later, we returned, placed a handgun in a backpack in the classroom and rifles outside on the ground outside. Through the hidden cameras, we watched. Nothing had changed; children still picked up the guns, still peered down the barrel, and still shot each other, and they did so after having said out loud, “Stop! Don't touch! Leave the area! Get an adult!”

Since 1999, when the first show on 20/20 aired, there have been 61 more school shootings (not including those at universities and colleges), resulting in 42 deaths and 86 injuries. The shooters were children, and the guns they used they almost always got from their homes. In 2010 (the most recent year for which the CDC has data), there were 362 firearm-related deaths in children ages 1 to 14; 62 were unintentional and 81 were suicides. Fewer deaths; that’s progress, yes, but each of those 362 deaths could have been prevented if parents had taken their responsibilities as seriously as they take their rights.

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There are always stories behind the numbers. In Sparks, Nev., a 12-year-old boy shot and killed his math teacher and injured two students using a semiautomatic 9mm handgun he took from his parents’ home. In Louisville, Ky., a 5-year-old boy shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a .22 caliber single shot rifle his parents bought him for his birthday. In Tom’s River, N.J., a 4-year-old boy shot and killed his 6-year-old friend with a .22 caliber rifle that he found in his home. In Orange County, Texas, a 5-year-old boy shot and killed himself with his babysitter’s semi-automatic .40 caliber pistol, which she had left on the coffee table while she napped. In Fayetteville, N.C., a 2-year-old girl shot and killed herself with her father’s .22 caliber pistol, which he had left under the couch. In Dundee, Mich., a 3-year-old boy shot and killed himself with a .40 caliber handgun found in a closet in his home.

Hopefully the 20/20 episode prompted some parents to lock up their guns, but in some cases it prompted angry criticism – from gun enthusiasts, NRA members, and others who are fearful that “we” are trying to take away their guns, their “rights” under the Constitution. But let me be clear. This is not about the Second Amendment or about a citizen’s right to bear arms. This is about the responsibilities that come with that right. This is about adults’ responsibility to keep children safe. After all, the right of children to live without fear and danger supersedes a Constitutional right to bear arms.

We put gates around swimming pools to keep children from drowning. We put safety caps on medications to keep children from poisoning themselves. Like bodies of water and colorful pills, a gun is what the law of torts calls “an attractive nuisance.” In other words, guns present a unique allure for children, especially for boys. For that reason, and because children are naturally curious and impulsive, and because we have shown time and again that we cannot “gun-proof” them with education, we have a responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of children.