Very Young Guns by Marjorie Hardy

5/14/99 New York Times


Allentown, Pa.


Would your child pick up a gun?  Would he shoot a friend?  Shoot himself?


Mine would, and so would dozens of others children at his day care center.


No, I’m not talking about toy guns.  I’m not talking about children with an emotional problems or violent tendencies.  These were children 4 to 7 who are middle class.  The .357 magnum, 22-caliber handgun and .38 with a four-inch barrel were disarmed, of course, but real.  Had these children found the guns in a different situation, they might be dead.


This test took places in my son’s day care center last month, but the results only reinforced the conclusions of previous studies.  In 1995 and 19996, two of my students and I conducted two studies whose original purpose was to find a way to prevent children from playing with guns.  We focused on young children, who are most at risk for accidental gun injuries.  And we took the approach that most parents take:  education.  We expected that the children would listen to us and that we could make their lives safer.  What actually happened was very different.


In the first study, we brought a police officer to a class of 60 children and he told them:  “Don’t touch guns—they’re dangerous.  If you see a gun, leave the area.  Go tell an adult.”  The children “learned” the lesson:  they could tell you what they would do it they saw a gun.  But when we left them alone with disarmed guns, they picked them up and shot everything in sight.


So, in the second study, we taught a different group of children for five days how to make good choices, how to resist peer pressure, how to distinguish toys from dangerous objects.


But the results were similar:  across the two studies, 65 percent of the children played with the guns.  They even tried to use crayons as bullets.


We asked the children if they thought the guns were toys.  Most of the 4-year olds couldn’t tell the difference between the real and the fake.  About half of the 5-year-olds and most of the 6-year-olds could distinguish between the two.  But they all played with the guns.  What’s scarier, a child not knowing what’s safe and what’s dangerous, or a child knowing the difference and playing anyway?


Not fair, the critics said; you put guns in a setting where, children feel safe, in their own day care class.  True, but aren’t’ homes supposed to be safe too?  We childproof medicine bottles and swimming pools, but we put loaded handguns in bedroom drawers.


We asked the children and their parents about guns in their homes.  We couldn’t’ get a straight answer.  Of the 109 parents interviewed, more than half reported that they owned guns, and four admitted to keeping a handgun loaded and readily accessible.  Did their children know where the gun was?  No, they said.


But the children told a different story.  Seventeen children whose parents denied owning guns said their parents had them.  Some told of one parents hiding a gun from another.  “My daddy keeps it in the glove compartment” of his truck, but my mom doesn’t know,” one child confided.  Ten children said they not only knew where the gun was, but had touched it without permission.


Gun control laws are a start, but rules and warnings alone are not going to keep children safe.  Parents have to monitor their children closely and rethink their decision to own a gun.  They need to know if guns are in the homes of their children’s friends.


Would your child touch a gun?  Mine did.  Then he lied about it when asked.  Thank goodness it wasn’t loaded.