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NOT A TOY Ė Thoughts on Kids and Guns

by Gordon Kelley

I remember feeling freaked out and refusing to sleep in my father-in-lawís "gun room" even though the guns werenít loaded. Iíd had a phobia of guns ever since my early teen years and the idea of sleeping in a room surrounded by his hobby made me very uncomfortable. I didnít like walking by the racks of rifles and shotguns in stores because even though they were unloaded, locked and behind the counter, the very sight of them made me nervous.

My father, a former probation officer, had a .22 rifle and a pistol when I was growing up. He took me shooting a few times when I was around 10-12 and while I have positive memories of that, my gun phobia developed later.

Aside from my dad, nobody I am related to owns guns or grew up with them. There are no hunters in my family and Iíve never had friends who were. After I became a parent, my dislike of guns increased because I saw them so negatively portrayed in the media and felt they were a real danger to my kids.

Three years ago I consciously chose to get over my phobia of guns. I donít like having phobias and I certainly donít like living in fear. Iím an intellectual person, so I approached learning about firearms in a scholarly way. I read a bunch of books on self-defense and firearms training. I read many articles abut guns on the Internet and participated in message forums on gun-based websites. I thought about gun related issues a LOT. I began to realize that, my feelings aside, there was solid evidence that guns often had helped to prevent crime. I read many stories of armed self-defense and slowly my inherently horrified feelings about guns began to change. Eventually, it was time to put the reading into practice by actually buying a gun and learning to shoot.

Nearly every person I know whoís found out I own guns has told me, "I never would have guessed you were into guns." I like that. I like it that I donít fit their stereotypes. Iíve never considered joining the military and there are no NRA stickers on my car. Iím a peaceful, friendly parent, rather liberal and "alternative" in my outlook on life. Only one friend even owns a gun and the rest have declined my invitations to go target shooting. In my laid-back community of Eugene, Oregon, Iím an anomaly because I own a gun but my vegetarianism is totally normal. 

The first gun I bought was a Remington 870, a 12-gauge shotgun. While buying it, my heart was pounding with nervousness, as if I was doing something illegal in public. It was a strange feeling later that evening, sitting in the bedroom of my comfortable home, making the classic "get away from me" sound over and over again by pumping the shotgunís slide. I didnít go shooting for weeks. I would just sit with it in my lap and think about being a gun owner.

A 12-gauge shotgun makes an incredibly loud boom, but the recoil was much less than I had steeled myself for. Nevertheless, my shoulder was sore after shooting many rounds that first day. It was surprisingly exciting, powerful and fun. I had no idea Iíd feel that way. Even after all my reading, I imagined actually shooting the shotgun would be either a letdown or something that I still found distasteful. I never expected to like it.

My enjoying shooting the shotgun wasnít because I now had deadly power in my hands. Hell, I have that every day driving my car around. I liked it because it was fascinating with its blend of power and thunderous sound. I had been doing so much reading about guns that it was great to actually be out shooting one. And what guy doesnít have a little boy inside that likes to see things explode?
I took the gun home and cleaned it, carefully making sure all the parts worked right. I became curious about how the gun worked, so I bought a video and books on how to disassemble and work on my shotgun.

One of the consequences of all my gun reading was my realization that I might someday want to carry a gun with me for self-defense. It was a very difficult decision for me, but the more I thought about it the more it made sense. Much of my reading suggested that a properly trained, armed citizen can decrease their own risk of being a victim, as well as being able to protect their loved ones. As a parent, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep my kids safe. To my surprise, I found myself becoming increasingly interested in armed self-defense as a protective measure for my children.

The second gun I bought was a .40-caliber Glock handgun. A shotgun, well, that has connotations of rural living, hunting and even wholesomeness. But my Glock was all business. This is a gun that looks like it belongs in the hands of police, criminals and movie stars playing dangerous characters. Black plastic, hard metal and heavy. Although much smaller than the shotgun, my Glock felt far more intimidating.

I treated it as I had the shotgun. I learned to shoot it by reading books then spending many hours at the shooting range. I cleaned it every time and learned to disassemble it. I even went to the sheriffís office and got a concealed handgun permit. I did a tremendous amount of reading on how to shoot handguns and the legal issues and societal attitudes towards them. I practiced with my holster and even occasionally carried concealed in public.

I felt pretty good about how far Iíd come. I had consciously gotten over my gun phobia, I owned guns and had become a decent shot. I was a member at two local target ranges and continued to enjoy shooting.

But then I read a book called "Gunproof your children", and it opened a whole new can of worms. In all my gun exploration, I had kept my kids out of the loop. I had this very instinctual "guns and kids donít mix" idea. My kids didnít even know I owned guns for many months after I got into them. They were 8 & 5 then. I was a single parent and felt fiercely devoted to protecting my kids. Overly protective, they might call it. It didnít occur to me to include them in my gun hobby.

I taught my kids to swim because someday they might be around water when Iím not around. I put bicycle helmets on them to protect their precious little heads. I insist on seatbelts to lower their risk of injury in a car accident. I feed them organic food to keep their bodies healthy. "Gunproof Your Children" taught me that knowledge of gun safety is like those things, a protective measure.
One day I sat my kids down and explained to them that I owned guns and would they like to see them? Of course, they wanted to. I took the guns out of the safe and showed the kids how they worked. Explained how to aim them, how to cycle the actions and how the bullets worked. I taught them the fundamentals of gun safety, most importantly that all guns should be treated as loaded at all times.

We talked a lot about how dangerous guns are and what they can do to people. Both children were fascinated and asked many good questions. Although it was entirely reasonable and sensible, I still felt a massive twinge of "this is not right" when watching my six year old son hold a rifle. I knew it was unloaded, but it was still so weird to see him aim and pretend to fire it. Both my children have been taught that at no time, whether loaded, unloaded or even disassembled, is it ok to point a gun at a person. 

There are two main reasons to teach children about guns. One is to decrease the risk that they will explore the parentís guns when the parent is not around. Yes, of course parents can and should lock their guns but werenít you able to get into just about anything your parents didnít want you to? If the mystery is taken out of it, then the motivated curiosity to get into it is largely taken away. The second reason is that no matter how well a parentís guns are locked up, it doesnít protect the child when theyíre at their friendís house and the friend pulls daddyís loaded .357 out of a drawer to check it out. It is for the second reason that I stepped over my mental threshold and began to teach my kids about guns. I want them to know that at ALL times a gun barrel must be pointed in a safe direction. I want them to know that ALL guns must be treated as loaded, even if someone insists itís not. If theyíre ever around a gun when Iím not there, I want to know that they know how to be safe. Most importantly, this means they know to never touch a gun without a grownup there and to leave immediately if another child insists on playing with a gun.

I discourage toy guns, as I feel that guns are serious enough that we should not have a playful attitude towards them, even when theyíre made of brightly colored plastic. Also, toy guns encourage a childís muscle memory to keep their finger on the trigger, whereas I teach my kids to always keep their finger off the trigger until ready to shoot.

Over the months, I repeatedly gave my kids the opportunity to handle my firearms and practice proper gun safety. One day I asked them, "are you ready to go out and see me fire one?" They enthusiastically responded, "YES!" I have taken my kids out many times to watch me shoot. I showed them what a shotgun, rifle or handgun can do to a variety of targets from paper circles to tin cans to apples to pumpkins. Well-shook up sodas were an especially effective and fun learning aid to shoot at. Both kids learned to respect how destructive guns can be. I occasionally even had the kids clean the guns, but eventually stopped that because I worried about the cleaning solvents being unhealthy for them to handle. At every opportunity I emphasized gun safety and made sure they were handling them correctly. 

By the time my daughter turned 9, I felt confident that she was handling them safely 100 percent of the time. She had repeatedly expressed a desire to actually shoot a gun. Since the shotgun was too big for her, and the Glock .40-caliber pistol too powerful for a child to handle, I bought a small Browning Buckmark .22-caliber pistol. I have taken her shooting many times and have felt proud to see her being extremely safe with the gun at all times. Children have excellent reflexes and soon she was quite a good shot. Our trips to the range became treasured father-daughter excursions. At the time I was taking a graphic design class at the University of Oregon. For the sample magazine project, I chose kids and guns as my subject. My magazine was called "Not a Toy" and featured my daughter on the cover, earmuffs and shooting glasses on, intently focused on aiming the pistol at her target. I felt proud of her and of myself. I was, and am, convinced that teaching her gun safety and then how to shoot will keep her safer in the world.

My son was six and although he strongly expressed a desire to shoot a gun himself, I was not ready to put a loaded gun in his hands. I let him come to the shooting range with his sister and myself, as well as handle unloaded guns at home. I plan on teaching him to shoot when he is nine or ten. My ex-wife strongly approves of my teaching the kids about guns. She grew up around guns and hunted as a teenager. 

I found, to my great surprise, that there are good childrenís books about guns. These have been a very useful teaching tool for my young son. They put the important lessons into language a child can understand. 

I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would ever own guns or teach my children how to shoot. I never imagined that I could be convinced that this was actually the best way to keep children safe around guns. But, through deep introspection and a lot of reading, I am thoroughly convinced that this is the best route for a loving parent to take with the issue of guns. I canít do a damn thing about the fact that my kids live in a country with literally millions and millions of guns. But I can teach them to be safe around them, and how to use them properly. Iíd rather do that than know that they have curiosity and no knowledge of firearms.

I still havenít chosen to keep a loaded gun around the house for self-defense. I rarely carry a concealed pistol, though I do have the holster and a permit to do so. I read less than I used to about gun issues, but think about them often. I like to go target shooting about once a month, and occasionally take my daughter with me. I have come full circle and now have guns as an enjoyable hobby. I expect that people will criticize me and tell me that my kids are more at risk because I choose to own guns. I know that my kids are safer with knowledge of gun safety and a healthy respect for guns than kids whose only guide to firearms are our mass media and whose curiosity is unfulfilled.

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