FIREARMS SAFETY & CHILDREN
Collection maintained by: Patrick Casey (pca...@interart.com) and John
Gunshenan (j...@bbn.com). Last updated: June 2, 1998
Copyright 1998, Patrick Casey and John Gunshenan. Use and copying of this
information are permitted as long as (1) no fees or compensation are
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copyright notice is included intact.
To contribute to this collection, please send e-mail to Patrick or John,
and ask us to add your comments to the Misc.kids FAQ file on Firearms
Safety & Children. Please try to be as concise as possible, as these FAQ
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For a list of other FAQ files, look for the FAQ File Index posted regularly
Owning a firearm is a very personal choice. In the document that follows,
we make no attempt to persuade the reader to own or not own them.
No matter how we feel about firearms, it is imperative that we teach our
children the basics of firearms safety. Even if there is never a gun in
your home, there may be one in a friend's, neighbor's or a relative's home.
Not teaching your children the basics of firearms safety is like not
teaching them how to swim, or not teaching them to avoid hazards such as
hot, sharp or pointed things. Children are curious. When it comes to
firearms, uninformed children are likely to get hurt! Let us not let our
politics blind us to ways to enhance the safety of our children.
We are not experts in child firearms safety. We are simply two readers of
the rec.guns newsgroup who felt a FAQ should be developed on this subject.
One of the rec.guns readers suggested that we cross-post this FAQ to the
misc.kids newsgroup, as our FAQ is addressed to parents who do not own
firearms as much as to those who do.
Patrick is the father of two children (ages ten & twelve), and is also an
NRA Certified Instructor. John has a five-year-old, and is also an NRA
Certified Instructor and a "We are AWARE" instructor (AWARE = Arming Women
Against Rape and Endangerment). What we offer below are simply our
opinions. However, if you have children or own firearms, we suggest that
you think about the issues that follow.
While Patrick and John are the compilers of this FAQ, they are not its
authors. Credit in that department goes to the various authors listed at
the end, and to the many rec.guns readers who helped develop it. This is a
much better document for all the time, energy, and keystrokes donated by
the rec.guns readership.
-- Children & Guns: Some Basic Facts
-- For Parents
-- For Gun Owners, Even Those Without Children
-- For Gun Owners With Children
-- Gunproofing Your Children
-- Additional Resources
CHILDREN & GUNS: SOME BASIC FACTS
Department of Justice data indicate that there are over 200 million
firearms in the United States, with guns present in roughly 50% of US
households (the percentage is higher in rural areas, lower in cities). Even
if you do not own firearms, chances are you have been in houses where
firearms were kept. If you have children, chances are they too have been in
houses where firearms were kept. Don't expect to be told that there are
firearms in the house. Because of the current political climate, many
law-abiding gun owners are quite discreet about their ownership. They tend
not to advertise it.
According to the National Safety Council, 230 children under the age of 15
were killed in firearms-related accidents in 1991, the latest year for
which figures are available. Since 1930, the number of annual fatal
firearms accidents has decreased 55%, while the population has doubled and
the number of privately owned firearms has quadrupled (National Safety
Council, U.S. Census, BATF). While this decline in accidents is good, 230
accidental fatalities is 230 too many. What follows are some things you can
do -- as a parent or as a gun owner -- to "gunproof" your children, and to
"childproof" your guns.
Like it or not, guns are out there in the world. They are a fact of life,
regardless of whether we keep firearms at home. With guns present in
roughly 50% of US households, your child is likely to encounter a gun at
some point in his or her youth. They may be playing in grandma's attic,
walking down an alley, or playing in the woods. They may be playing at a
friend's house, where the friend says "Hey let's play with my Dad's gun!"
Just as you teach your children about safety with respect to hazardous
materials they are likely to encounter -- electrical outlets, household
chemicals, swimming pools -- so you should teach them the basics of
firearms safety. The most basic gun safety message for children is the
Eddie Eagle message:
If you ever see a gun laying out, even if you think it may be a toy ...
o Don't touch
o Leave the area
o Tell an adult
There is no perfect age to talk with your children about gun safety. You,
the parent, must be the judge (Patrick's children learned the Eddie Eagle
message at age four). For many, a good time to introduce gun safety is when
your child starts acting out "gun play" or asking questions about guns.
Answer his or her questions simply and straightforwardly. If you don't know
the answers, contact a knowledgeable person (for an example of what can
happen by not teaching children about firearm safety, send mail to Patrick).
The great advantage of teaching your children about gun safety is that it
applies outside your own home and teaches a crucial life skill; its
Achilles' Heel is peer pressure. That is why childproofing the guns in
one's home is also essential.
Guns are just one among the many hazards children may encounter in a home.
The only way to tell if a home is child-proofed is to talk with the people
who live there. You really have to openly discuss this. Discreet
investigation will tell you whether the outlets are covered, and whether
there are knives stored openly where children can get them. Some folks take
this a step or two further, and they discreetly look through medicine
cabinets and cupboards for hazards.
Discreet investigation will not tell you whether there are hazards stored
in a bedroom drawer, for instance. A night stand drawer might contain
hazards like medicine, scissors, or a gun. You can't investigate all the
possibilities without violating the privacy of your hosts.
We think you have to talk about childproofing with the homeowner; we don't
see any alternative. Most people will be happy to tell you about what is
and is not childproof. If you raise the issue in a positive and polite tone
of voice, we can't imagine how any reasonable person would take offense. If
they do take offense, I'd watch my children every second they're in that
You could start by saying something like, "Can we talk about childproofing
for a minute? I'm sure your house is generally safe for children, but my
daughter is really good at getting into things. You wouldn't believe some
of the "childproofed" things she's gotten into. Can we just chat about this
for a moment?"
First, ask about any known hazards that you should keep children away from.
Things like this: The shed in the yard is full of power tools. The sewing
room has pins and needles in it, but we keep it locked. The children aren't
allowed to play in area XXX for reason YYY.
Then, go over the standard list of concerns, chemicals & cleaners,
medicine, sharps (knives, scissors, sewing pins & needles, etc.), fragile
glassware on low shelves or tables, swimming pool, busy roads nearby, hand
& power tools, and guns.
I'd present this in an apologetic tone. "Look, we try to train her, but
she's only 2 and she sometimes gets into things she shouldn't. I don't want
her to break your fragile glassware, may I move it to a higher shelf, just
while she's here?" "I don't mean to pry about guns, but you'd be amazed at
how many homes have guns in them! Half the homes in the country! In this
day and age, people feel like they need to protect themselves. etc., etc.
So do you have any in the house? How are they secured?"
Note that you're not asking where they are, or if they're loaded. You're
just asking if they're locked up somehow so that the children can't get to
them. If they tell you, "Don't worry, the guns are unloaded", that's a very
bad sign. Most firearms accidents happen with guns that were thought to be
You may encounter someone who has guns and doesn't know about firearms
safety, how to properly secure their guns, or even how to tell if they're
loaded. A classic example of this is a widow who has her husband's guns in
the house, but doesn't know the first thing about them. In that case, you
can help them out by getting information from the rec.guns FAQ, or putting
them in touch with a group like AWARE (e-mail in...@aware.org). The rec.guns
FAQ is accessible via anonymous FTP at flubber.cs.umd.edu (get the file
/rec/FAQ/FAQ1) or via World Wide Web at http://www.recguns.com/.
Even if you do all these things, there might be a gun in the house that one
of the children found in an alley & brought home without telling the
parents. The only way to guard against this is to "gunproof your children"
(see below). You want to do what you can to prevent your child from
encountering a gun without proper supervision, but you have to realize that
you can't control everything. You have to teach your kid to behave safely
around hazardous materials and devices.
FOR GUN OWNERS, EVEN THOSE WITHOUT CHILDREN
If you choose to own a gun, you must take personal responsibility for
securing it from unauthorized handling, whether by children, guests,
neighbors, or criminals. If you choose to have a gun in your house, every
member of your household should be trained in basic gun safety.
If you choose to keep a loaded gun available for protection, you have a
special (and in some places, legal) obligation to keep that gun secured
from unauthorized handling. This means keeping a solid lock between your
guns and any visitors, whether children or adults. That can be the lock on
your front door (no unsupervised visitors allowed inside, where loaded guns
are out and available), a bedroom door (no visitors allowed in the
bedroom), a closet, a gun cabinet, a safe, or a lock box. The choice is
yours, but choose something.
If you choose to keep a loaded firearm for protection, carefully consider
where to keep it. It is often recommended to keep the gun on your body when
you are awake. This can resolve the dilemma - at the expense of some extra
effort - at least for handguns, at least when you are awake. But many
people cannot or choose not to carry their firearms, so the question of
safe storage arises.
If you keep a firearm near your bed, you want to make sure you'll be wide
awake when you pick it up, so keeping it too close to your bed may be a
problem. You may want to use a lock box, one that you can open by touch,
quickly, under stress, in the dark.
FOR GUN OWNERS WITH CHILDREN
In the home, nothing can or need be left to chance. There is no reason or
excuse for exposing children to danger from firearms in the home. Obviating
this danger by discipline and readily available safety measures is the
first responsibility of the gun owner with children. This can be done, even
if you keep or carry a loaded firearm readily available for defense. The
few terrible circumstances of children killed or injured with a parent's
gun betray unconscionable and utterly avoidable safety violations, failures
of discipline and responsibility. If you have children, and if you choose
to own firearms, you have an obligation to teach your children about gun
There are lots of approaches that don't work, such as:
-- Hide it (they'll find it)
-- Get a gun that's too hard for a child to operate (they'll use
tools or full-body leverage to operate it)
-- Get a gun with a magazine safety & keep the magazine on you
(God help you if they ever get hold of a magazine)
-- Fancy gadgets such as plastic rods, rubber bands, pinch-to-open
trigger guards, etc. On the one hand, you can still make some
things "go bang" with many of these, and most manufacturers do
not intend their products to be used on loaded firearms. On the
other, over-reliance on these devices tends to underestimate
the ability of children to find keys, use tools, etc. (see
Lyn Bates' excellent article "Keeping the Piece" below)
-- Always keep the gun on your person (and hope you never dream about
having a gun fight)
Trigger locks can be of some help. They are inexpensive, easy to install,
and provide some level of safety. They are much better than relying on
"hiding" your weapon or doing nothing at all, but don't rely on them
exclusively. You don't want to use them on loaded weapons, and most of them
don't prevent weapons from being loaded. If you rely on them exclusively,
what will happen when your child finds the key? Also bear in mind that keys
are too hard to manipulate in the dark, or under stress. But trigger locks
can be effective with small children, and in conjunction with other safety
Similarly, a lockbox or gun cabinet can be helpful; just beware of relying
on them exclusively. They can be opened by a 12-year-old using simple,
household tools (again, see "Keeping the Piece" below).
The most secure way to store firearms is no doubt a safe. Borrowing
liberally from Henry Schaffer's excellent summary "Gunsafes" (for the full
text of "Gunsafes", see the rec.guns FAQ), gun safes are made of fairly
heavy gauge steel, with special attention paid to hinges, multi-point
locking devices, pry-resistance, hard-to-defeat locks, and weight. The low
end of the safe category will weigh a few hundred pounds and will cost
perhaps $600 - $1,000 depending on how it is outfitted. The casual burglar
with a crowbar -- or an inquisitive child -- is unlikely to be able to
penetrate this type of safe. At the same time, a safe is virtually
impossible to access quickly, under stress, and in the dark.
A $600, 250+ pound safe may be pretty close to childproof, but many people
can't afford them. The next step down from safes is a "gun cabinet," with
prices starting at about $100. Again, using Henry's overview, these are
metal cabinets, built about as strongly as an office file or stationary
cabinet, with a key lock which latches the door. They can be opened with a
crowbar/prybar, or with an ordinary drill, but this type of entry would
show obvious damage. In this case you would be counting on a child's
reluctance to damage the cabinet as a deterrent. However a break-and-enter
burglar who is after the VCR, jewelry (and who probably carries a crowbar)
will not be deterred by this and will probably get the cabinet open in a
very few minutes. In this same category should be included the neighborhood
teenager-gone-bad type of criminal. Like safes, they are difficult to
access quickly, under stress, and in the dark.
Both safes and cabinets have the drawback that you can't open them in a
hurry, under stress, in the dark. Better in that respect are lockboxes.
There are several good ones on the market with fast-access, push-button,
combination locks that are reasonably child-resistant and easy to
manipulate in the dark (again, see "Keeping the Piece" below). However, in
our opinion, there is only so far you can go with "childproofing the gun."
Even better is "gunproofing your children."
GUNPROOFING YOUR CHILDREN
"Gunproofing your children" means teaching them that guns are not toys, and
teaching them firearms safety and responsibility. Nothing left to a child's
discretion is fail-safe, especially where peer pressure may reign. But
training your children in the basics of firearms safety gives them a better
chance of escaping danger or harm should they ever encounter a gun beyond
your control, a better chance than children still in the thrall of fatal
curiosity, awe, and ignorance.
In movies and television, guns are icons of power. The good guys have them,
and use them to restore right and order. Even on the old "Adam 12" TV show,
these two quintessential Officer Friendly types had more gunfights in one
season than most big city police do in their whole careers. Not only does
the mass media present a distorted view of the frequency of firearms use,
it is even worse when it comes to teaching judicious use, proper sporting
use, and gun safety.
For small children, the first thing to teach them is the Eddie Eagle
message (stop, don't touch, leave the area, tell an adult). This can be
taught as early as age three or four. As they get a little older -- and
after they understand and practice the Eddie Eagle rules -- teach them the
basics of safe firearms handling.
There are four firearm safety rules taught by Jeff Cooper of the American
Pistol Institute. Follow these rules and you cannot ever have a mishap.
Even if you violate one of them, you are still all right; it takes multiple
errors to cause an accident.
1. All guns are always loaded
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on
4. Be sure of your target and what's beyond it
(for more on these basic points, send mail to Patrick)
Many gun owners use the natural curiosity of their children as an
opportunity to teach gun safety. At Patrick's house, for example, the
children can see and handle firearms whenever they ask. We first review the
Eddie Eagle rules, then the golden rules of firearms safety. Then the guns
come out. Questions are often asked -- how does this part work? what does
that do? If any safety rules are broken -- even inadvertently -- the guns
get put away.
Another good thing to do early on -- and repeat from time to time -- is to
take the children to a shooting range to demonstrate what a gun will do to
a milk jug, liter-sized Coke, or watermelon. Children know that the people
they see getting shot in movies are actors, and that after "getting shot,"
they later get up and go home. Shoot a water-filled milk jug with a .357
pistol or a 12-gauge shotgun. Have the child hold that (shredded) milk jug
up to their chest. Help them understand that, while shooting can be lots of
fun and a recreational activity they can practice into their 90s, guns are
not toys; their power must be respected.
Also, think about using cleaning as an opportunity to teach gun safety. If
you try to 'hide' your gun cleaning by always doing it after the children
go to bed, you will only increase their curiosity (they'll eventually catch
you anyway). Don't do things that encourage them to get into the guns when
you're not around. I almost always clean my guns when the children are
around, and they often ask to help. Here's another chance to go over the
Eddie Eagle rules, the golden rules of safety, and to respond to their
natural curiosity (also a way for mother or father to get some free help).
Allowing the children to assist in such a 'grown up' activity may also
increase their general maturity level, build pride in competence, and
improve general safety awareness and practice. A note of caution though ...
if your children help with gun cleaning, make sure they wash their hands
with soap afterwards. While most of what you clean up is powder residue, be
especially careful about the small amounts of lead that might be cleaned
out. If the children help with cleaning, make sure they wash their hands
and faces -- with soap -- afterwards.
Here are some sources of additional information.
-- The Eddie Eagle program is a set of non-political gun safety
materials designed specifically for children. The materials
includes coloring books, posters, videos, as well as instructors
materials. They are available in three levels (pre-school to
grade 1; grades 2-3; grades 4-6) in both English and Spanish.
For her role in developing Eddie Eagle, then NRA vice president
Marion Hammer received the National Safety Council's 1993
Citation for Outstanding Community Service for leadership
in program development. The program has also received
commendation from the American Legion's National Committee
on Education, is endorsed by the Police Athletic League and
is used by numerous organizations such as the Boy Scouts and
Girl Scouts of America. Schools, law enforcement agencies and
civic groups interested in the Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program
can contact the NRA at 1-800-368-5714.
-- "Keeping the Piece" is an excellent article on children and gun
storage, written by Dr. Lyn Bates and published in Women&Guns
magazine, June 1993. Back issues cost $3 each, and can be ordered
by calling 716-885-6408. Keeping the Piece is also available
electronically, courtesy of the author, by sending mail to
-- "Gunproof Your Children," by Massad Ayoob, Police Bookshelf, 1986,
$4.95, phone: 800-624-9049
-- "Kids & Safety" (chapter 8 of "Armed & Female," by Paxton Quiqley,
E.F. Dutton, 1989, $4.99)
-- "Gun Safety" (chapter 16 of In the Gravest Extreme, by Massad
Ayoob, Police Bookshelf, 1980, $9.95, phone: 800-624-9049)
-- Children and Guns: Sensible Solutions, by David Kopel, 1993,
Independence Institute, phone: 303-279-6536, $12.00
-- "A Parent's Guide to Gun Safety," 1992, available at no charge
from the National Rifle Association. Call 1-800-368-5714 and
ask for the Safety and Education Division