Guns the Right Way: Introducing Kids to Firearm Safety and Shooting (2015)
When Your Child is Old Enough To Handle a Gun
Tell me if you’ve heard this advice: “Kids aren’t responsible enough to shoot until they are 12 years old.”
Or this one: “When I was a kid, I was given a single barrel 20-gauge and three shells and told to go out in the woods and bring back something for supper.”
Or maybe even: “GUNS??? ARE YOU KIDDING??? Kids should NEVER be allowed to handle a gun and shouldn’t even DRIVE until age 18!”
All of these opinions can, of course, be spot-on correct.
Each one can also be terribly wrong… because it depends on the child.
This, in my opinion (which has been honed over almost 40 years of shooting and hunting, and the instruction and introduction of thousands of youth over that period of time), is where there is a great disconnect that I believe can easily be remedied.
A study conducted on behalf of the Hunting Heritage Trust and the National Shooting Sports Foundation in January 2012 asked young people ages eight to 17 about how they viewed hunting and target shooting. A 385-page report on the survey showed results that were very clear. Young people who were exposed to hunting and shooting were more likely to have a positive view of those activities. Those who weren’t exposed, well, weren’t likely to have a positive view.
A warning to the reader - I am about to shock some of you.
As I write these words, I have four children ranging from 22 years to 10 years old. All of them shoot. All of them have their own firearms. All of them were not just introduced to guns and shooting, but active shooters by the age of…four.
I told you that you might be shocked. I ask that you bear with me so that I may explain.
You see, I have been an avid hunter and shooter my entire life, from age three. I started in my father’s lap, aligning the sights on the chosen target and pulling the trigger while he held the Sheridan pellet rifle steady for me. Many times we punched holes in paper. Just as many times, we shot at empty “Jolly Good” pop cans that we saved from special events. Unlike today, pop was a rare treat in our house growing up. As I grew older, I would track down empty soda pop and beer cans from every possible place - friends, neighbors, even the side of the road. My mother relates the story of how once, as a six-year-old, I screamed at her to “STOP THE CAR!!!!!,” then jumped out before it was even stopped and grabbed a paper bag on the side of the road that held a treasure of empty beer cans to shoot at as my target.
I was passionate. I was focused. Shooting was important to me and I did everything I could to participate in it whenever I could. I loved it because it was something that my dad did, and something that has grown from that first day almost 40 years ago to something that we still do together today.
So, how does this relate to you knowing when your child is old enough to handle a gun?
The answer is, your child will tell you.
I showed curiosity, I asked questions, and when my father would shoot, I asked if I could try. All of those are signs of curiosity, of which children have no shortage.
Soda cans are inexpensive, readily available and fun to shoot.
Now, my father did not just hand me a gun and say “here you go kid,” and walk away. Every interaction with a firearm was carefully controlled, with him not just present but in control of the gun for almost every second of the interaction. It was made to be fun and entertaining for short periods of time.
There was no stern lecture at the beginning telling me how guns were dangerous and how I was just a child and wasn’t ready, nor were there any boring lectures throughout my budding shooting career beating the rules of safety into my head.
Remember, I was three years old. I just wanted to have fun with my dad.
Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner is known for his studies on conditioning and, more specifically, operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is different from classical conditioning in that it uses reinforcement and/or punishment to alter behavior. In his most famous experiment, Skinner conditioned a rat to push a lever by enticing it with food. Every time the rat pushed a lever, a food pellet was released. The rat ate the food. Before long, the rat was trained to get its own food.
Skinner also worked with and developed the process of negative conditioning in which an unpleasant thing was removed when a certain action was performed, such as tapping a button or pushing a lever.
Finally, there were studies involving punishment, in which there was a negative consequence after the act of performing a given activity.
I explain this theory not to wow you with my knowledge of behavioral science (it is actually rather limited), but rather to back my own theories with science. The lessons that were taught to me were subtle, yet effective. I was conditioned through positive reinforcement over time. One time we shot a full pop can with a pellet rifle. My father shook it up beforehand, unbeknownst to me, and when the pellet struck it exploded in a foamy spray that was amazing to a young child.
“Wow! That was really cool, Dad. Let’s do that again!” We did, to the same effect.
My father took that opportunity to explain to me just how dangerous even this “little gun” could be to me, to my family, and to anybody that was at the wrong end of it. He stressed that never ever, ever, ever point this or any gun at anything that you do not want to kill or destroy forever.
As we shot, my dad would point out little things like, “This is the safety. We always keep this on until we are sure of our target and what’s behind it so that we don’t accidentally have the gun go off before we are ready to shoot.”
My positive reinforcement was spending time with my dad and having fun.
Other things like the subject of hunting and killing animals also came up. There was a squirrel running across the yard and I wanted to shoot it. My father said “absolutely not.” “Why?” I asked. “Because it is summertime and squirrel season is closed. We only shoot animals in the fall and only when they are in season. “Why?” I asked again. “Well, because those rules make sure that we aren’t taking a mama squirrel away from her babies when she needs them when they are little in the spring. We also only take so many of them so that we do not shoot all of them and there are more squirrels for us to take and eat next year.”
Again, little lessons over time.
Those lessons were burned into my brain over the course of years, repeated over and over again. Never a lecture, never a two-hour lesson, but, rather, periods of fun and enjoyment with a lesson going along.
As a child, it never occurred to me to ever do anything wrong or unsafe with a gun. Just as it never occurred to me to pick up a hammer and knock holes in our walls. I was taught otherwise.
Many of us grew up with guns.
Fast-forward seven years: I had lots of friends, and the vast majority of them did not hunt or shoot. To me, this was a foreign concept. I lived in a rural area, with woods surrounding our home and a cornfield across the street. Having been raised with guns and hunting, it was perfectly normal for me to assume that that was what most kids did. It was also perfectly normal for me to assume that I could have my friends come over and shoot my pellet rifle or my shotgun with my father and me.
It turned out that this was not often the case.
My parents received some phone calls from parents of school friends who had come over and shot my pellet rifle in the backyard with me. Not all of them were good phone calls.
I had a friend named Dave who had never shot a gun before. Dave was from “the city” (Chicago) and spent summers out in our rural community with his grandparents. I will never forget the first thing he did when I handed him my pellet rifle to examine. He picked it up and turned it over, pointing the muzzle directly at me.
I hit the floor and screamed at him, “Point that gun up in the air!”
His response: “It’s fine, it’s not loaded.”
We were eight years old.
Clearly, Dave was not yet ready to properly handle a firearm without some serious instruction. Just as clearly, I was at a different level of experience, knowledge and comfort.
Almost 20 years later, I had another experience that molded the way I, and someone who had been “anti-gun until they’re adults,” viewed kids and guns.
My son had a friend named Tim. Tim was a great kid and was a special child in many ways. One of those ways was that Tim was born with his left arm ending in two fingers instead of an entire hand. Tim also had a left leg that was shorter than his right, with only four toes on one foot, which was also a different size from the other. You would never know it by the way Tim acted, though. It didn’t even slow him down.
They met in preschool and were basically inseparable for years until we moved away almost 400 miles to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Once, Tim came up to stay with us for a bit and we went and did all kinds of fun things. We hiked in the woods, went out on the boat and went fishing. One of the things we wanted to do was go to a local abandoned gravel pit and shoot .22 rifles.
For that, and for all interactions with guns, I insist on having parental approval before doing anything. Tim’s parents were divorced, and since Tim’s mother had set up the visit and would be returning to her, we called Tim’s mom and explained what we wanted to do. She had a complete meltdown and forbade him from going near any guns with me or anybody else. Tim was eight - the same age I had been in the experience with my friend Dave. I brushed it off and found other activities to distract the kids in order to avoid upsetting anybody.
I also have a steadfast rule - certainly for guns, but in everything that we do: I make the decisions for my children, you make the decision for yours. We may or may not agree, but your child is not my child and vice versa.
The week that Tim spent with us was wrapped up with a sleepover where a number of my son’s friends came over to our house. Tim’s mom came to pick him up and take him back home on a Sunday afternoon, but she wasn’t going to go anywhere without giving me a lecture about kids and guns.
She began with the age-old, “Guns are dangerous, he could get hurt, I’m afraid of an accident,” speech.
This is an important point to stop and reflect, as I find that the overwhelming driving force of parents who don’t want their children learning about firearms is fear, and most often that fear springs from a lack of experience and knowledge. It is also a great opportunity to introduce two people to guns.
As the conversation moved forward, we got into the whole “he wants/she wants” argument that evolved into what clearly were some parental and relationship issues that had nothing to do with guns. (Remember, Tim’s parents were divorced, and if that is the case with any children you are teaching, make certain you have at least one parent’s written permission. Trust me.)
I quietly interrupted her and said, “Let me show you something.”
Five other local boys, friends of my son, were at the house. Those boys were up and down the stairs going between our playroom and my son’s bedroom constantly, which required them walking through our living room. They all had been introduced to guns before, most of them having a great deal of shooting and/or hunting experience.
I took out my Ruger 10/22 rifle, triple and quadruple checked that it was unloaded, and carefully laid it on the coffee table in the middle of the living room with the action open. The rifle has a 3-9x magnification scope on it and a 25 round magazine that I intentionally left in to give it an even larger profile. Those boys went through that living room four or five times over the next hour while we had coffee in the kitchen. Every one of them ignored that gun lying in plain sight in the middle of the coffee table.
Every one, that is, except Tim. Tim stopped almost every time he went by and looked at the gun, even touching it a couple of times.
That is a dangerous situation, and that is why my kids are talked to about guns from a very early age in my home and why I advocate teaching kids as young as three about firearms. Unfortunately, we lost touch with Tim over the years, but I hope that he received some proper training, somewhere.
Your purchase of this book demonstrates that you have an active interest in teaching children about guns, and I believe my decades of experience when it comes to kids and guns will allow you to find it extremely helpful.