Why Little Kids Kill
The six-year-old boy who killed his six-year-old classmate at a Michigan elementary school is perceived by many as the youngest child to kill someone with a firearm. But he's not even close.
If we put aside the multitude of young kids who shoot other young kids accidentally (with guns that adults insisted were too high up or too well-hidden to be found by such small kids), we're confronted with the sad reality of children who shoot others intentionally. But whether kids kill because they've accidentally misfired a gun or because they intended to murder schoolmates or family members, we're still faced with the same troubling question: Why did the child have access to a gun in the first place?
Why they do it
That many young killers target people in their own families -- often abusive fathers and stepfathers -- no longer comes as a surprise. But what's still shocking is that some of these kids are so young.
A boy I'll call Robbie shot and killed his father after watching his mother being beaten. His drunken father had left a gun on the table and though Robbie confessed to the killing, few people initially believed that he could have done it. That's because he was only three years old. After gunpowder tests confirmed him as the killer, he explained to authorities: "I killed him. Now he's dead. If he would have hit my mother again, I would have shot him again."
Drew Golden was just 11 years old when he and another boy shot 15 people in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Santa gave Drew a shotgun when he was 6. He was taught to hunt as a tot and later perfected his reflexes with violent video games. When Drew wanted guns for his shooting spree, he got them where almost all young killers get their guns: home. To his credit, Drew's father had a gun vault the boys couldn't open; to his discredit, the boys were still able to find 3 unsecured handguns. They got 7 more guns from the home of Drew's grandfather.
Boys will be boys
Guns give tragic permanence to hostilities and disagreements that would otherwise pass with time. Though the NRA and other gun advocates claim the solutions to the gun-violence crisis are education and training, boys cannot be taught to be adults. Boys have poor impulse control; they are immature and adventurous. They are, in short, boys. Few parents would leave a blowtorch or dynamite around the house for an unsupervised boy to play with, yet many parents allow access to guns, either intentionally or negligently.
We don't let boys drive, buy alcohol or cigarettes, vote, or get married, but many parents provide them access to guns. Almost a decade ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 1.2 million elementary-aged latchkey kids had access to guns in the home. Given that 20,000 guns enter the stream of commerce each day, that figure is even worse today.
A simple fact of the species is that boys and men love guns. Shot from the back porch at some tin cans or shot from an aircraft carrier at some Iraqi soldiers, it's no matter -- we can't get enough of them.
So while you may be able to keep your son from owning a gun, if you try to talk him out of wanting one, you are up against a pretty strong argument: You mean I shouldn't want a device that grants me power and identity, makes me feel dangerous and safe at the same time, instantly makes me the dominant male, and connects me to my evolutionary essence? Come on, Mom, get real!
And when he enters his teens, a million cells swimming in testosterone will stir mysterious male cravings that holler: "Dominate!" -- because that's how you get the good chicks. So are we curious about guns? Curiosity doesn't touch it -- we are enraptured. On the news, on TV -- on a shelf in the attic. In a movie, in a toy store -- in Mom or Dad's bedside drawer. In a magazine, in a video game, in a friend's house -- just try to keep it from us.
Some boys go through a gun phase we could call a brief fling; others marry the gun for life. Whatever path your son ultimately takes, he'll need to have a clear understanding of your policies about firearms, as well as the consequences of violating those policies. That means parents have to make some decisions:
Gun owners need to keep guns locked; that's an easy one. The question of whether to keep the location of a gun secret from a child is also easy: You may elect to treat it as a secret, but never, ever rely upon the belief that a child cannot find a gun in the house.
Guns could have components that inhibit firing by children, or technologies that allow operation only in the hands of the owner (with a coded ring or wristband, for example). But today, it's easier to shoot most handguns than it is to open a bottle of children's vitamins.
Speaking of tamper-proof containers, the design of billions of bottles of consumer products was changed after the deaths of 8 people from poisoned Tylenol -- a tragedy completely beyond the control of the manufacturer. Gun-makers, on the other hand, knowingly and enthusiastically build products that kill 500 Americans each week, and we don't require a single safety feature.
Consider this: There are four categories of federal safety regulations covering the manufacture of teddy bears, but none about guns. Today, firearms are unique among consumer goods in America in that they are not governed by any federal safety regulations. While most every business is concerned with delivering its product or service safely, gun manufacturers are studying ways to make their products more lethal. They work to make them more portable, more rapid, and more effective at damaging human tissue. And the more high-tech guns become, the more crucial it is for us to address the gun access issue.
Keep your kids safe
Some gun owners explain that they needn't lock their weapons because they don't have children. To them I say: Other people do have children, and they will visit your home one day. The plumber who answers your weekend emergency will bring along his bored nine-year-old son, and that boy will find your gun.
In the meantime, if you own a gun, or you know someone who does, make sure that the gun itself -- not just the cabinet, closet, or drawer that you store it in -- is kept locked. Doing this is the opposite of government gun control; it is personal gun control.
It's not even enough to be vigilant about the danger posed by guns in your own home. Whenever your kids visit or sleep over at someone else's house, always ask the supervising adult if there are guns in the house. A.S.K.: Asking Saves Kids.
Considering that so many parents make the choice to keep a gun in their homes, it's no wonder the rate of firearms deaths for young people in America is 12 times higher than in all the other industrialized countries -- combined.
Thankfully, we all have the right to not bear arms; you can choose to make your home a weapons-free environment. Let's hope the sad lesson taught in Michigan last week is not lost on people with guns in their homes.
More on: Childhood Safety