Thursday, December 8, 2011

When Kids and Guns mix and when they don't

Theresa and Natalie Jensen love their single-shot, bolt-action Crickett .22, and are proud of their increasing shooting skills
Photo taken by Paula Faraci

Of all gun politics and policy issues, few, if any, elicit the kind of raw emotion than the "mixing" of kids and guns. Last year, I bought my twin daughters, who at the time were six and a half, a single-shot crickett .22. Aside from adult policy debates, the kids are loving it and usually shoot it when they have the opportunity.  It's been a great way to spend family time and get prepared for their first hunts that should happen next year.  The reaction from most of my friends and family was strong support, but shock from a number of non-gun owning family friends.

I've had the fear of kids and guns "mixing" come up regularly over time in conversations with other parents, usually liberal urban people with little or no connection to shooting sports. One particular memory I have was at an Early Childhood Family Education class. I mentioned the value of youth hunts as a family activity.   One parent in the group said with contempt "oh, great idea, kids and guns".  There is a significant section of parents who want the total separation of kids and firearms, they have an intense feeling about it.

In 2008, apparently due to the opposition from some parents, a North Carolina school district took administrative action to prevent a high-school affiliated Future Farmers of America Marksmanship Team from participating in a weekend shooting contest. The school board's policy statement was "kids and ammo don't mix". See the International Hunter Education Association's response.

Shootings by youth, accidental and deliberate, is one of the few areas  where pro-gun control forces have won some policy victories, although some of those victories are a decade or more old.   A good example is the "no guns on school grounds [under any circumstances]" law that is in place in Minnesota, apparently a state level implementation of the 1997 Federal Gun-Free schools Act. We are what would be considered overall a "pro-gun" state, although less so than states in the south and west. We are certainly pro-hunting. There is no provision in the law for teenagers who are involved with hunting to have guns in their cars on school grounds if they are hunting after school, even with some procedures such as notifying the principal beforehand and using trigger locks. In rural areas of the state hunting after school would be common, and not uncommon in some exurban areas, so it is a significant restriction. Last year, two boys were suspended for three days under the law's provisions, even though everyone involved acknowledged there was no intent on their part to threaten anyone at school, they were just going hunting right after school.

The well-intended but bluntly written laws responding to school shootings and the grassroots fear of "mixing" kids and guns are a significant problem for the future of hunting. Our numbers are in a slow decline, and there is tons of evidence that to sustain our hunting heritage, we have to bring kids into hunting and shooting, and the younger, the better. This is not to dismiss the very encouraging trend of "Adult Onset Hunters", many driven by a desire for environmentally-friendly and healthy food and an active lifestyle. However, to maintain our hunting culture, it is clear that a key strategy is that it has to be done as it was for thousands of years: a skill passed through families, from older generations to the next. In today's society, where outside forces often overwhelm families, hunting families are going to need to have a support network among youth, in schools and other institutions. That is going to mean kids learning to shoot guns.

The gut reaction by many parents against mixing kids and guns is driven by some real dangers that shouldn't be ignored by the shooting sports community. The US rate of youth shootings, both accidental and deliberate, and youth suicides by firearm, is the highest among the rich nations of the world. My readings of the studies on the matter lead me to conclude unsafe storage of firearms is largely to blame. While youth firearm violence and deaths aren't isolated to the poor, there appears to be significant socioeconomic differences. This interesting study of firearm storage methods in households with youth under eighteen includes a number of excellent citations of other similar studies, and there is solid evidence that higher household income and education is correlated with safe storage, in addition to regional differences.

Focusing only on the serious negatives, and foolishly ignoring the health, family, and environmental benefits of kids being involved with hunting, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends to not have guns in the home at all if you have children under eighteen.  This is in spite of the fact  one JAMA study showed safe storage methods decreased the rate of accidental and suicide deaths by youth dramatically, and concluded safe storage was a viable alternative to asking families to get rid of their guns.

Of course, the guns rights movement isn't doing the situation any favors. The NRA's insane response to school shootings is to begin a discussion of essentially militarizing public schools, that included "for consideration" armed principals and teachers. They intensely resist legislating gun storage practices that they recommend people do on their own, characterizing them as a government plot to invade the homes of gun owners. They recently pressured the Florida legislature to enact a law that barred pediatricians from asking families about gun ownership and how they stored them. The law was struck down as a violation of the first amendment by a judge appointed by George W. Bush. The gun rights movement's response to the real dangers of unsupervised and uncontrolled access by youth to firearms is to argue that legislating storage methods would infringe on the right of armed self-defense. All of this amounts to more anti-hunting politics from the NRA. Their response makes it harder for shooting sports advocates to get the social support needed to recruit families to shooting and hunting.

A new, progressive program of advancing youth shooting sports participation needs to be advanced. It would involve policies that encourage kids to start shooting guns at an early age, with proper controls. Some combination of safe storage legislation, broad based school and other institutional support for youth shooting needs to be enacted. Government-sponsored education campaigns should include the benefits of kids being involved in shooting sports, as well as the clear dangers of youth suicides, accidental shootings, and use of firearms in crime. In a large majority of suicides, there are warning signs, but the decision to commit suicide is impulsive, and the solid majority of those that attempt suicide unsuccessfully don't do so again. Access to lethal means matters greatly, most of those that attempt suicide with a firearm are successful. The lessons that hunters learn in firearms safety, "you can't retrieve a bullet", or "once you pull the trigger, you can't undo the outcome", are very relevant here.

Enacting youth shooting sports programs are going to take a lot of effort.  We'll need to both confront the NRA and educate and convince a lot of parents, school administrators, and legislators about the value of kids hunting and shooting.  Public health officials concerned about gun violence, the AAP, and gun control groups will need to show strong support for youth participation in shooting sports.  But ultimately, it's going to be concerned hunters who are concerned about the future of our tradition who can make it happen.  We know the value of private gun ownership, and the serious responsibility it is as well.