No matter how hard you try to keep your kids ignorant of guns (or drugs, or texting and driving, or birds and the bees), over time they will develop ideas about them. The question you have to answer as a parent, tasked with the education and moral upbringing of your child is who do you want to give them that education? Here’s the hard truth—if you choose not to educate your children, your kids will get their firearms knowledge from entertainment media & their peers. That should be an uncomfortable thought. Virtually everything we see portrayed in movies, television , and (especially) games, regarding firearms (while entertaining) is incorrect. Similarly, who knows what your childrens’ peers and their parents know about firearms. It is almost certain they will not learn anything useful on the topic at school. No, as with most important topics in life, the best bet is to educate your children yourself. And if you are not well educated with facts then it falls to you to find someone who is knowledgeable and trustworthy to help you teach them. To put it another way teaching your children gun safety is like teaching water safety, stranger safety, dating safety, playground safety, driving-around-town safety, etc. You will not be there for every decision your child makes, but you can help prepare them to make those important decisions by teaching them safety rules and your standards of behavior.
As with every important topic in life you should answer your child’s natural curiosity honestly and with age appropriate information. Allow and encourage your children to interact with you and firearms at an appropriate level for their age and maturity. No matter how old your children are you should provide them a basic understanding of firearms safety.
2-5 Years Old
This is an appropriate time to teach kids that if they see a firearm in an unsupervised situation, they should “1. STOP. 2. Don’t touch. 3. Leave the area. 4. Tell an adult.” This is the message that the NRA’s Eddie the Eagle program teaches. Created back in 1988, it is aimed at children in pre-K through third grade, and can be taught by anyone, regardless of NRA affiliation. While anti-gunners claim that the Eddie Eagle program indoctrinates kids into the “gun culture,” that is simply hoplophobia. Its purpose is simply child safety, it does not make a value judgement on whether guns are “good” or “bad”. Children, even small children, can make good decisions, but repetition of guidelines is key. Every single time you handle a firearm in front of your child, or any time the topic of firearms comes up, quiz them on these four simple rules.
5-9 Years Old
Now it is perhaps time to learn the Four Universal Safety Rules:
- Treat every gun as if it is always loaded
- Never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy
- Keep you finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
- Know your target and what is beyond it
And the un-listed 5th rule: always secure your weapon from unauthorized persons
Depending upon your child’s maturity and their ability to grasp all four Universal Safety Rules, as well as their physical ability to handle a firearm safely, this age group is ready to shoot a BB gun (or a .22 caliber rifle when they’re at the upper end of this age group) under your close supervision. Make these sessions about drilling the Universal Safety Rules more than bullseyes. NO matter how many times you have to say, “point that downrange” or “finger off the trigger,” keep saying it. You own the responsibility for drilling these rules into your child’s brain. This training will become so hard-coded that when they are 40 they will still avoid pointing the muzzle in an unsafe direction while cleaning a disassembled weapon. They’ll return the favor by doing the same with your grandkids.
At the first hint of them being “over it”, if they are not having fun anymore; end the session for the day. Praise your child’s accuracy, but even more so, praise them for the great job they did in adhering to the Universal Safety Rules, and review any time they failed to follow them.
9-12 Years Old
Children vary tremendously in emotional and physical maturity in these years. It is imperative that you are honest with yourself and your kids about when they are ready to progress into larger calibers, marksmanship, hunting, etc. Most states have a firearms safety course that is required before anyone is granted a hunting permit or allowed to hunt semi-unsupervised and it is in this age range that these programs first become available to youngsters. At any rate if your child is interested in learning more about guns this is a good age to learn about how firearms work, how to disassemble them, clean them, and reassemble them. This will de-mystify them further, and as many studies have shown education and understanding removes the mystery and excitement over anything perceived as “grown up”, be it drugs, alcohol, firearms, the birds and bees, or automobiles. Children are capable of making good decisions if they are repetitively given honest & consistent messages. You may find that your children challenge you to be more safety conscious at times. When they begin to challenge you about how you carry a knife, or on trigger discipline, or to not text and drive; if you listen to them, you win. At any rate, some youngsters in this age group will be ready to start hunting, or competing, some may want to begin shooting shotguns. Wherever their interests lie, allow them to follow them as much as possible.
13-18 Years Old
You really have to be honest and objective about where your child is in terms of maturity and emotional stability. There are 12 year olds I would trust far more than 18 year olds. Maturity is based on matters of trust. When you can handle that kind of trust depends a lot more on upbringing than age, it would seem.
Teenagers who have demonstrated maturity and rock solid safety when using a rifle or shotgun, may be ready to step up to learning how to operate a handgun. With their shorter barrels, handguns can sometimes reintroduce muzzle control problems, so watch closely to ensure that all safety rules are being maintained. As your teen gets older and gets closer to 21 they may express a desire to carry a weapon as perhaps you do. This is a good time to start educating them on the legal ramifications of doing so.
Remember, as with all things in life, your children will learn more by watching what you do, rather than listening to what you say. Be a good teacher. Set a good example.