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Fathers and Guns

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On February 15, 2014, my family stopped at a gas station en route to my son”s and daughter”s combined birthday party. My wife took my daughter in to use the restroom and found an unattended pistol lying atop the toilet paper dispenser. It is our occasional habit, especially with gender-specific restrooms, for my daughter to have me wait for her outside the restroom door. And so an hour later it occurred to me that the decision to have my wife go in instead of me might be the only reason my little girl wasn”t left alone in a small room with a loaded firearm on the day we celebrated her fifth birthday.

We don”t know how many children are killed by firearms in the U.S. each year, but a very conservative estimate is around 1,000. (And let”s not bring gangs into it; if you expand the age range to include anyone under 20, you get 10,000 gun casualties and almost 3500 deaths per year.) We do know that guns kept for self-defense purposes — surely the reason one would take a pistol into a gas station restroom — are more than 20 times more likely to be used to kill a loved one rather than an intruder. And even a casual perusal of the news tells the story as plainly as it can: unsecured weapons kill our children all the time, and we do little or nothing to prevent it.

The pro-gun contingent likes to talk about responsibility. They talk about it in spite of the statistics. They talk about it in spite of the fact that gun owners whose weapons are used to accidentally kill children are rarely prosecuted, particularly if they”re white. They talk about responsibility with a weird reverence, like Reagan-era Republicans talk about America in the 1950s. Their disappointment that we”re not living in Mayberry is palpable, and they won”t accept any other solution. Trouble is, I grew up in a Mayberry of my own, and I see the fault lines.

My father, in some ways, represents both the NRA”s ideal of responsible gun ownership and the best arguments against the NRA itself. A lifelong (and prolific) gun owner and sportsman, my dad brought me up with an iron-fisted, zero-tolerance attitude toward improper gun handling. His attitude was informed by a lifetime of watching bullets and shotgun pellets rip into flesh, and by some relatives dead before firearms. I was not allowed to even point toy guns are other people. Imagine being raised in the South in the 1970s with that rule.

But guns were everywhere in my father”s life, including in my hands quite a lot. I was taught how to use them safely… or as safely as a child can. But they were there, in the television shows (Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid, John Wayne) we watched together on television, and in the drawer by my dad”s chair. And for quite a long time, under the seat of my father”s car, which is the unlikely starting point for dad”s split with the NRA.

After an incident, the details of which are unimportant, my father decided to stop taking a gun with him everywhere he went. He had a moment — an exceedingly rare moment, among American gun owners — of recognition of his own limitations in which he decided that he couldn”t necessarily trust his own judgment in all circumstances, and that it would be better to not always have a gun on hand as a potential solution. We have all made our share of mistakes; adding deadly weapons to that reality seems foolish.

Years later, Dad canceled his lifetime membership in the NRA over the organization”s pro-assault weapon stance. He had grown up with a more moderate NRA that advocated for reasonable gun policies, and found it incomprehensible that the organization could support the private ownership of what he calls “people-killing guns”… that is, weapons with no legitimate purpose other than the destruction of human beings.

My brother and I were both raised with that very measured, reasonable, and cautious attitude towards firearms. He still loves to tell the story of his reaction to my brother”s recklessly, but accidentally, shooting a friend with a BB gun: he took the air rifle and beat it against the deck railing of his house until it would certainly never be used to shoot anyone else.

For my part, in spite of my upbringing I did much worse. I played war with BB and pellet guns in the woods around my school. Yes, shooting at my friends, and being shot at by them. I blew a perfectly round hole in the toe of my boot when I accidentally fired a 20 guage shotgun into it while hunting… though I knew perfectly well that everything leading to that explosion was error on my part (resting the gun that way, having my finger on the trigger, having the safety off). Because the thing is that accidents happen to the most responsible of us, and especially to our children, for whom “responsibility” is little more than an abstraction, like math or the necessity for chores. Children and the pro-gun lobby think responsibility is something you say you are, that it can become a true thing because you believe in it, and that nothing bad will ever happen to them. But responsibility is about applying principles and assessing risks in an honest way, and then using what you learn to make your family safer.

ABC”s startling report, substantiated by academic research and any measure of experience with children, teaches us that children will play with guns even when they know better, given the opportunity. One more story from my childhood: I smoked my first cigarette the afternoon after getting a very lengthy anti-smoking message at school. It doesn”t take a lot of reflection on childhood to understand that sometimes rules stimulate curiosity, and that consequences are poorly grasped, if at all. And it doesn”t help when the entire culture glamorizes the forbidden object.

(An important aside: The ASK (Asking Saves Kids) program created by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center to Prevent Youth Violence is a great place to start making your children safer. Three-fourths of the children under 10 hospitalized with gunshot wounds are the victims of accidental shooting. Finding out if there”s a gun where your child plays reduces this risk.)

So how do I, a gun owner who intends to acquire even more (for hunting) in the near future, react to this information? Well, I”ve given up the fantasy of self-protection. I have cable-locked my guns and stored the magazines away from the weapons. Given where I”ve stored all the components… keys, guns, magazines, ammunition… it is now a practical impossibility for children the age of my son and daughter to use the guns. I will, of course, have to adjust this strategy as they get older. But I haven”t covered all the bases. There remain a few troubling possibilities, situations in which those weapons could be misused. I could suffer a moment of madness and use one, or my wife could. The guns could be stolen. Or they could be mis-handled on an occasion when I”ve assembled them for intentional use. There is no such thing as a completely safe firearm.

The bet gun owners make with ourselves is that we”re eliminating enough risk to make our children safe. Some gun owners seem less interested in winning that bet than others, obviously. But I have managed the risk to my children as well as I can, right? Of course not. Because I can”t control the behavior of other gun owners. I can”t control the irresponsibility of the woman who returned to the gas station in a panic for her gun, no doubt fearing it had been stolen rather than that some little girl who likes dancing and gardening and dinosaurs had shot herself in the face with it. And that”s precisely what might have happened if I, and not my wife, had taken my daughter into the gas station that day, yesterday. Before yesterday, I didn”t make a tactical sweep of every room my daughter enters. I left her alone in public restrooms based on their being clean and empty. I trusted her to go into the homes of gun-owning relatives who, I hoped, are as careful as I. But all of that is no more. The price paid for freedom — the freedom of concealed carry, the freedom of rare negligence prosecutions — is that I won”t feel safe again. It”s a high price, but the parents of a thousand American children pay a much higher price every year. And, in any event, the price is far too high.

EDIT: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly referred to magazines and “clips,” a common but incorrect usage that has plagued me throughout over 30 years of gun ownership. Thanks to those who were kind enough to point out the mistake.