Contrary to the claims of the National Rifle Association, public health research suggests that “gun safety” programs have little effect in reducing firearms death and injury. The American Academy of Pediatricsq Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention has concluded:
Firearm safety programs directed at children are being promoted actively by some groups in some locales. There is no evidence that these programs are effective in reducing either gun handling or gun injuries. This may be because developmental characteristics of children and adolescents (e.g. impulsivity, poor judgment, active imagination) cannot be addressed effectively by such programs.
In an educational brochure for parents, “Keep Your Family Safe From Firearm Injury,” the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “[b]ecause even the most well-behaved children are curious by nature and will eagerly explore their environment, the safest thing is to not keep a gun at home.”
As with other behavior education approaches to safety, gun safety education programs have been met with skepticism. In the October 1994 issue of Pediatrics, public health researchers Judith Cohen Dolins, MPH and Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, MD, MPH, noted:
Educational programs for both gun owners and children are supported by some gun proponents; they claim that such programs can reduce dangerous access, make children safe from the dangers of guns, and reduce unintentional injuries….Data showing that this strategy is effective are scanty, however. Although owner education may inform adults about proper handgun storage, it cannot guarantee the habitual behavior needed to keep a handgun out of reach of children. There is no evidence that safety lessons are retained by children at the critical times when they confront a loaded weapon. Indeed, the combination of the high stakes involved, death or disability, and the propensity of children to forget rules while playing or upset makes this a dubious approach at best. Because children cannot be made `gun safe,’ their environments must be made safe by removing the most dangerous guns.
“Gun Safety” Victims
In early December 1995, 13-year-old Joey Skinner was shot by his 15-year-old friend when the older boy found a 25 caliber pistol he thought was unloaded. The gun went off and hit Joey in the head, killing him. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Joey had attended a gun safety course at his junior high in Tampa, Florida several weeks earlier.
According to the Cedar Creek Pilot in Seven Points, Texas in January 1996 Robert Arther accidentally shot himself in the leg with a 32 caliber pistol while explaining gun safety to his son.
Nine-year-old Alicia Fuller died in early February 1996 after being accidentally shot with a 22 caliber rifle by her twin brother. The Gold Hill, Oregon shooting took place as the boy was showing his sister the correct way to carry the rifle in the woods. An article in the Medford, Oregon Mail Tribune noted, “The boy–who had had some gun safety instruction–told authorities he knew he wasn’t supposed to touch the rifle when his parents were not home.”
In Lexington, Virginia James Thorp, a firearms safety instructor, accidentally killed 10-year-old John Pickral when the pistol Thorp was putting away unexpectedly discharged. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported that Thorp had previously taught the 10-year-old gun safety. The April 1996 shooting occurred in front of the boy’s mother.
In May 1996 a 10-year-old girl from Rexburg, Idaho survived a shot to the chest from a .44 magnum revolver fired by her 12-year-old brother in their home. Ann Clark and her brother John were playing with several guns in a basement bedroom at their home. Dan Clark, the older brother of the two children involved in the shooting, said his little brother had just learned about gun safety and had gone shooting with his Scout troop the week before.
Rather than recognizing the inherent danger firearms in the home pose to children, and the often irresponsible firearms storage behavior of adults, the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program places the onus of safety and responsibility on the children themselves. The September 1997 issue of the NRA’s Eagle Eye newsletter printed a letter from Chuck Esposito. The NRA-certified firearms instructor detailed how on a recent vacation he left a loaded pistol with a round in the chamber beside his bed. The handgun was later found by his seven-year-old grandson. While Esposito admitted, “Grandpa had done a naughty thing by leaving the pistol unattended and accessible to the children,” he also praised himself, noting,”I was also responsible for gun-proofing the child who prevented my carelessness from becoming a tragedy.”
Educators critical of the Eddie Eagle program note that it shows a lack of knowledge of how children learn to make complex decisions. As Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children and an expert in early childhood education, told the Herald-Tribune in December 1988, “To pretend even for one minute that it is OK for an adult to leave a gun around and that a child can be taught to come get you is just reprehensible.” In addition, as illustrated by the incidents on the opposite page, anecdotal evidence reveals that gun “safety” programs—for adults or children—do not ensure safe gun handling. In unintentional shootings involving children who have taken gun safety courses, the shooters are often showing off firearms to friends—in some cases, demonstrating what they learned in safety classes.
Empirical research supports this theory. An August 1996 study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics studied preschool children’s behavior before and after a firearms safety intervention program. Results from the study indicated that the intervention was ineffective in modifying the behavior of the children. The researchers concluded:
Many parents of young children believe that merely telling their children to stay away from guns is sufficient to prevent gun injury. However, the present study demonstrated that this strategy is not sufficient, even when warnings are backed up by a law enforcement officer….Although children with accessibility to firearms were better able to tell the difference between real and toy guns, this knowledge did not inhibit them from playing with real guns. Children whose parents reported gun ownership but stated that their children were unaware of this fact were significantly more likely to report that they did indeed know where their parent’s gun was and that it was accessible….In fact, in the present study, 19% of children whose parents owned a firearm had played with the gun without their parents’ knowledge, a factor that contributed to both gun play and aggressive behavior with their peers. This finding in particular is alarming and suggests that parents’ belief about their children’s naivete is faulty. Apparently, far more children are playing dangerously with firearms than their parents and the general public realizes. Only when the gun fires accidentally do we hear about it.23
And, since gun safety courses like the NRA’s Eddie Eagle never address the consequences of mishandling firearms, it is not uncommon for children who have taken such courses to be shocked when faced with the physical trauma of a gunshot wound.
In March 1997 the VPC released the report Kids Shooting Kids: Stories from Across the Nation of Unintentional Shootings Among Children and Youth.s Included in the report were unintentional shooting incidents in which both the shooter and victim were age 17 or younger. Intentional (suicide) and unintentional self-inflicted gunshot wounds were not included. Incidents were reported in 40 states and included both fatal and nonfatal shootings. The actual news clips from each state comprised the bulk of the report. News clips contained in the report included: 97 incidents in which a child or teenager was unintentionally killed by another child or teen; 125 incidents in which a child or teenager was unintentionally injured by a shot fired by another child or teen. In addition to the overall numbers obtained from the clip survey, discernable patterns began to emerge from the news clips of children and youth shooting one another:
- A number of incidents involved siblings.
- A number of incidents involved very young children shooting one another.
- A number of incidents involved firearms belonging to parents or grandparents.
- In a number of incidents children removed the gun they used from a locked gun cabinet or safe.
- In a number of incidents children were not aware that the firearm was loaded.
Kids Shooting Kids revealed that the inclusion of simple safety devices on many firearms would have a far greater effect than “gun safety” programs. The firearms industry, however, is the only manufacturer of a consumer product virtually exempt from health and safety regulation. As a result, gun manufacturers routinely do not include simple safety devices that could prevent some unintentional shootings. In addition, the industry actively promotes gun ownership and usage among women and youth—which can only increase children and teens’ exposure to firearms. Ideally, firearm manufacturers should be subject to the same health and safety standards that currently apply to manufacturers of other consumer products such as toasters, toy guns, and motor vehicles. Comprehensive safety regulation is the only way to ensure that all manufacturers include such proven safety devices as:
- Load indicators, which alert a user that the gun’s chamber contains a bullet. This device addresses the “I didn’t know it was loaded” hazard.
- Magazine disconnect devices, which prevent a gun from firing once the ammunition magazine has been removed, even when a bullet remains in the chamber.
- Minimum trigger-pull standards, which help prevent very young children from being able to pull a gun’s trigger.
- Positive, manual safety devices, which are designed to ensure that firearms will not discharge unintentionally when dropped or bumped.
In order to be effective, requirements for such safety devices must be combined with an effective and vigilant enforcement authority. At the federal level the most efficient way to implement such oversight would be to vest the Department of the Treasury with basic health and safety authority over firearm manufacture and distribution. A 1996 national survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center revealed that 74 percent of the American public favors “government safety regulations for the design of guns.” At the state level, one approach would be to vest state attorneys general with such authority.
No safety device or technology, however, can render a firearm “safe.” All firearms, and handguns in particular, are inherently dangerous products. The risks presented by guns can be reduced, but not eliminated. Handguns are responsible for the vast majority of firearms death and injury. No combination of safety devices can adequately reduce the risks associated with this category of firearm. The most effective approach to reducing death and injury would be to ban the sale and possession of handguns. Short of this, the most effective preventative measure to protect children from the risk of firearms-related death and injury, however, is to keep homes gun-free.
q) The American Academy of Pediatrics “and its member pediatricians dedicate their efforts and resources to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. The Academy has 53,000 members in the United States, Canada, and Latin America.”
r) A copy of the text of the letter is available from the VPC.
s) Beginning in the fall of 1995 the Violence Policy Center undertook a project designed to put a face on the numbers representing children and youth killed and injured in unintentional shootings. From October 1995 to June 1996 the VPC used a national clipping service to collect news clips from daily and weekly newspapers of reported incidents of unintentional shootings involving children and youth. In reviewing the news clips, the most striking and disturbing trend was the large number of incidents in which children and teens unintentionally shot other children and teens. Kids Shooting Kids focused on these incidents.