Legal gun owners are generally responsible people. They understand that firearms are deadly weapons with lethal consequences and they take every precaution to ensure the firearm is stored, operated and carried safely.
With that being said and understood, there are still those who don’t understand some of the safety risks involved with having a gun in the home, particularly around children. They believe that because the child is young or doesn’t have dexterity or perhaps because a gun is equipped with an external safety that it is then “safe” to leave unattended on a shelf or in a drawer.
Everytown for Gun Safety put out a report on unintentional gun deaths based on data from the Centers for Disease Control. It concluded that unintentional firearm deaths of children under 14 are largely due to children between the ages of 2-4 gaining access to unsecured firearms in their own homes and shooting themselves. When asked, many gun owners will claim their children in that age range are not strong enough or do not have the dexterity required to operate a firearm.
Who’s right? And how do we find out? Can children as young as two years or even younger make firearms discharge? Is there a “safe age” to leave your firearms unattended and unsecured? How can these questions be answered safely and who would allow their children to participate in such an experiment?
To answer these questions I looked no further than my own living room. I have three children. At the time they were 6 years, 3 years and 7 months old. While they have been raised in a home with guns we have been rigorous in our safety precautions. Our 6 year-old had been allowed limited and controlled firearm access on shooting ranges. Our 3 year-old and 7 month-old have had no access to firearms beyond Nerf.
I wanted to test how children make firearms function and at what ages they were capable of making a firearm discharge. I also wanted to document how this happened and share my findings.
The 7-month Old
My first experiment was with my 7 month-old.
I acquired a toy gun that looks similar to a standard Glock handgun with a reasonably realistic trigger weight (the pounds of pressure that must be exerted on a trigger to make the firearm discharge). The toy produced an audible “bang” sound when the trigger was depressed. While my 7 month-old played on the floor with other toys I slipped the toy gun among his toys and stepped back to watch him. I did not show him anything about the gun.
His attention was drawn to the bright orange tip around the muzzle which is meant to demonstrate that it is, indeed, a toy. He grabbed for it and as he lifted it off the floor to put it in his mouth his other hand grabbed for the most convenient hand-hold which happened to be the trigger guard.
As repulsed as I was to see my precious baby with a gun barrel (toy though it may be) in his mouth, I allowed him to continue his exploration in the interest of seeing whether or not he would make it go off.
The toy gun took a beating and lots of sucking and kicking and drool. It took some time but it happened. While sitting on it, he kicked it, his toes got caught on the trigger, the rear of the firearm was caught in his blanket and that muffled but sobering, “BANG!” rang out.
Had it been a real firearm my beautiful baby boy would have just shot himself in the pelvis.
For a long time nothing else happened. The toy seemed to be forgotten. He moved on to other toys until he decided he wanted to suck on the orange tip again and see just how much noise this new toy made when it was smashed against the floor.
Taking the trigger guard in his hand which stacked his chubby fingers on top of the trigger, he began to pound the toy into the floor until it went off a second time. A few minutes later he did it again.
The impact of the rear of the gun against the floor combined with his downward force of his fingers on the trigger was enough to make it go off.
Three times in a half hour was enough for me. I took the toy away from him and he will not get it back until he’s old enough to learn at least some principles of safe gun-handling.
The 3 Year Old
My three year-old has far more experience with firearms in that she has seen them on television, she has seen her brother shoot and she has seen her mother and father carrying and practicing with guns. She’s also had her own experiences shooting up her bedroom with Nerf guns.
She understands the concept that a gun is gripped by the grip and that a projectile is expected to come out of the barrel and the trigger makes that happen even if she doesn’t understand the gravity of those actions when it comes to the difference between what is real and what is a toy .
One of the most tragic ways that children her age shoot themselves is through pointing the gun at themselves and using their strongest digit, the thumb, to pull the trigger.
To get a more realistic vision of how she might shoot herself I gave her a replica gun she’s never seen before. It’s a KWA airsoft gun that happens to be a replica of a 1911-style pistol with a manual external thumb safety and a grip safety that shoots pellets using compressed air. While it stings, it is not lethal. Even so, I removed all pellets and the air source and put the gun where my daughter would find it. Many parents express that they feel comfortable leaving a gun with external safeties accessible because they don’t expect their children to be able to figure out the safety mechanisms.
My daughter had never experienced any type of firearm with any sort of safety mechanism.
Upon finding the gun she expressed excitement. She squealed, “A gun! For me!”
Once again, despite my wanting to correct her and guide her in safe handling, I stood back and let her experiment. While this replica does not produce the audible “bang” such as the last toy, it produces a distinct “snap” when the hammer falls that would indicate a discharge.
I watched as she immediately tried to pull the trigger and when she was not successful in making the hammer fall she turned her attention to the thumb safety.
Seeing she was already working her way toward defeating the safeties I turned to get my camera poised to document this process. Before I could turn to take her picture I heard the “snap.” She had the gun in her possession for less than thirty seconds, defeated both external safeties and was able to produce what would have been a discharge.
I put the safety back on and put it back on the floor. It took her a little longer to figure it out the second time but she did. She defeated both safeties again and produced the audible “snap.”
Having demonstrated she was more than capable to defeat safeties I decided to move on to another commonly relied upon method parents use to assume guns are safe; the unloaded chamber.
“Hey, Sweety, can you rack the slide?” I asked her.
We have never taught her what a slide was or how it is operated. I was expecting her to ask me what I meant or to say, “I don’t know how.”
Instead, she put the grip of the gun against her thigh, grabbed the slide with both hands and racked it back like she’d been doing it her whole life.
“Like this?!” she asked.
I was shocked.
To this day I don’t know how she learned to do that. I would not have assumed that was possible for her.
I talked to her about gun-handling, took the replica away from her, locked it back in the safe and reaffirmed my commitment to keeping real firearms secured from her.
The 6 Year Old
My final experiment was with our oldest. I knew (or at least hoped) he would respond differently. He’s already received instruction in handling real firearms and had done some long-gun shooting in closely supervised environments.
To gauge his reaction, I put the same KWA 1911-style replica on his box of LEGOs and waited for him to get home from school.
While watching from a distance as he went to play I saw him register the gun and stand up in shock.
“Mom!” he yelled, “That’s a real gun!”
“Is it?” I asked.
“Yeah! And we don’t touch real guns.”
“That’s right,” I said.
He looked at me and back at the gun. He was confused but losing his concern. He wanted his LEGOs but that meant going around the gun. He had told me about the gun but I had not responded. I could see him thinking about the dilemma. Finally, he reached down and grabbed the gun.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Well, I was moving the gun to get my LEGOs.”
He wasn’t meaning to disobey our rule of not touching guns but in his excitement to get to his toys that exactly what he did. He was focused on a singular task and that took priority over obeying a rule.
He immediately put down the gun and asked if he was in trouble. I assured him that he was not. We went over gun safety and handling one more time. I put the gun away and that was the end of my experiment.
Conclusion And Lessons Learned
Some of the things I learned through this experiment were no surprise to me. I fully expected that given enough time all of my children would be able to manipulate the toys and replicas until they discharged. I did not expect it to happen so quickly. I also did not expect my daughter to know what racking a slide meant or to be able to execute it so efficiently without any instruction or time to figure it out.
Our daughter is not particularly gifted, but she is a child. Children are forced, by their very nature, to test the limits of what they can do and how they solve problems. They are creative and inventive. Many a gun has been reached in a place that was “out of reach” or “hidden.” Too many children have died because their parents didn’t believe their children to be the problem-solvers they are. We cannot underestimate our children and their abilities to solve even complex problems in short periods of time–especially when their lives are on the line.
I expected the sight of a gun among my son’s toys would absolutely shock our oldest but I didn’t think he would abandon the rules of handling so quickly even though it was a very unique situation for him. I purposefully ignored his alerting me to the presence of a gun because more than one news report has told of injured children who alerted an adult before the accident occurred but the adult did not believe the child. The child went back to handle the situation him or herself and that is when the accident occurred. It’s important that when a child alerts us to what he or she thinks is a gun that we respond immediately.
Adults tend to look at guns in very logical and predictable ways. Adults who have never touched a gun before will still handle the firearm by its gripping surfaces and understand that the trigger is what makes the firearm discharge and the end with the hole is the part you want to stay away from. Children, particularly the very young ones, do not approach guns the same way. As they explore their world they have no concept of what is to be avoided, what is dangerous, what shouldn’t be touched or put in their mouths. They grab, they pound and they fiddle. No firearm safety mechanism can be expected to withstand that kind of constant manipulation. Children as young as seven months usually don’t gain access to guns on their owns but I have been made aware of many parents who will leave a firearm accessible in their presence because “they don’t have the strength to pull a trigger.”
The problem is that children don’t have to have the strength in their hands to pull a trigger, they just need gravity.
Children, no matter the age, are capable of firing guns. It is our responsibility to make sure firearms are secured in a manner that restricts access and to educate. It’s also our responsibility to understand that even the best instruction is fallible. It’s also our responsibility to believe our children when they tell us they have seen or have access to firearms.
Other experiments with children and guns have demonstrated the significant benefits of education on children and their understanding and respect of firearms. Properly educated children from birth about the responsibilities and dangers of firearms should be done in conjunction with safe storage and handling by adults, however, rather than used as a substitute for responsible storage and carry.
Firearms in long term storage should be stored unloaded with ammunition stored separately. Firearms in use for home or self defense should be stored in quick-access safes or carried in quality holsters on responsible adults. We can dramatically reduce the unintentional deaths of children by firearms if we treat those firearms with the respect they deserve and keep them secured from our children.