Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gun Safety: Young Children Will Play With Guns No Matter What

On Friday, February 1st, Tmorej Smith died. He was three years old, and he lived in South Carolina. While his grandparents watched television in another room, he and his seven year-old sister were playing with their mother's handgun. Tmorej was shot in the head and quickly died. Police reports are not clear at the current time as to whether he shot himself or whether his sister shot him. But, his sister told family and police they thought the gun was a toy.

Here is what the gun looked like:

Does this gun look real to you? It looks like a toy to the average seven year-old

Tmorej's story is tragic, but not uncommon. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, over 100 children die of accidental gunshot wounds every year, and another 3000 or so receive nonfatal gunshot wounds.

The psychological research is fairly clear as to why this is: If they have access to them, kids will play with guns.

Let me state that again: If there is a gun in your house that your kids can access, they will play with it.

One more time, in a slightly different way: If you have an unsecured gun in your home, your kids have most likely found it and have already played with it.

Kids, especially young ones, have difficulty distinguishing real guns from toy guns, and for some reason, children are drawn to playing with guns like magnets. When you add a pretty, small, unusually colored gun to the mix, it becomes irresistible. If they can get their hands on it, kids will play with it. Some of them will shoot themselves or their siblings accidentally as a result.

An interesting catch in this research is that gun safety classes appear to mitigate some of the risks associated with children and access to guns. Especially as they age, children learn from gun safety classes and understand that guns are not to be touched or played with when adults are not present. The best gun safety classes are the ones that teach children to handle actual firearms during the class.

But, there is another catch: These gun safety classes do not work on younger children. Up to the age of seven or eight, kids will still play with guns if they are available, even if they have been exposed to extensive gun safety classes.

These findings indicate the best way to keep your children safe if you have guns in the home is to keep them locked in a safe and unloaded. Ammunition should also be locked, ideally in a separated space from the firearms.

I have heard parents say locking up firearms and keeping them unloaded defeats the purpose of home safety. If a bad guy breaks into your house, you need that loaded gun immediately. It takes too long to unlock it, unlock the ammunition, load the gun, and then confront the intruder.

All of that is true. But it is important to keep in mind that one of your young children is much more likely to kill you or one of your loved ones with an easily accesible, loaded gun than an intruder is. If your goal is to maximize your family's chances of living, your best bet is to lock up that gun.

I feel terribly for Tmorej and his entire family. No three year-old deserves to die, and no seven year-old deserves to live the rest of her life with that horrible memory. No family deserves to endure the grief I am sure they are feeling. My heart goes out to them, and to the families of the other children who have died in accidental shootings already this year. I only hope parents who are responsible gun owners will take the simple steps needed to prevent such an awful tragedy from befalling their family.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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