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Guns for Tots


  • Dion Ogust

Who shoots whom these days in America?

Crazy, demented teens who can't get a girlfriend? Mexicans who've crossed the border of Donald Trump's mind to form gangs in Iowa? Thugs in urban ghettos?

Yeah, them. And then there are the toddlers. "A two-year-old in South Carolina found a gun in the back seat of the car he was riding in and accidentally shot his grandmother, who was sitting in the passenger seat."1 Does that sort of thing happen a lot?

As of October 15 of this year, "at least 13 toddlers had inadvertently killed themselves with firearms, 18 more injured themselves, 10 injured other people, and 2 killed other people."2

It's tough out there in tot-land. They're not just killing, they're being killed. In 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 15 children no more than a year old were shot to death (12 ruled homicides, three ruled accidents by whatever local authorities handled them), 46 between the ages of two and four (39 homicides, 27 accidents), and 181 between the ages of five and 14 (142 homicides, 39 accidents).

The NRA sponsors "youth days" to close out their annual conventions. Reporters were banned from the 2014 "Youth Day" in Indianapolis. But reports from others, where witnesses were not kept out, make it clear that it's a commercial event in which gun dealers and others in ancillary enterprises display their wares to children and their parents, allowing them to handle and try them out. At the 2013 convention, a five-year-old who got to shoot said, "I like it because I like the smell of gunsmoke." Parents said things like, "If a child understands how to properly and safely shoot, then they become much safer. In a bad situation, they will understand what needs to be done."3

Tot shooters are largely an issue of gun safety. Parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors leave a gun where someone small can find it. When it comes to guns, there seems to be even more parental self-delusion than there is with sex.

A group of parents and children, five to 14 years old, were surveyed. Many of the parents were confident their kids didn't know where their guns were kept. When those children were questioned, 39 percent of them knew. 

Of those who swore their kids never handled their guns, 22 percent had.

A gun instructor, speaking of safety at an NRA Youth Day, said that children's bedrooms were the best place for a home gun safe.

A lot of gun advocates say proper training is the answer. Perhaps at some point it is. But in 1996, a experiment was done with fout-to-six-year-olds by Professor Marjorie Hardy at UNC-Charlotte. She brought in 48 children. Half were given a lesson from a uniformed crime prevention officer, then got a parent-child meeting in which they went over the rules, like, if you see a gun, "Don't touch, leave the room, get an adult!" Combined groups, trained and untrained, were put in a playroom where they could be observed through one way glass. There were toys, including toy guns. There was also a woman's purse on a table with a real—but disarmed—gun inside. As soon as a kid discovered the real gun and announced it, all other play ceased. The gun was it! "They were putting it in their mouths, shooting the toys, shooting each other, shooting the mirror. Some of them tried to make bullets out of crayons."4 Professor Hardy did a follow-up study with older kids. The results were the same.

One of the most interesting gun advocates sounding off at the moment is almost-leading Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson. He claims that if he had been at the mass shooting in Oregon, "I would say, 'Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can't get us all.'" Sometime later, he told a tale of a real-life encounter at a Popeye's Fried Chicken. "Guy comes in, puts the gun in my ribs. And I just said, "I believe that you want the guy behind the counter.' He said, 'Oh, okay,' and moved on."

There is something wonderfully childlike in both of these. The first is the sort of thing my son and his friends would have come up with when they were five or six and all sorts of miraculous derring-do seemed utterly plausible. As for the second, it's like a schoolyard moment when the bully appears and you get out of it by pointing at someone else, saying, "It was Joey who said that thing about your sister," without a moment of hesitation or worry about what's going to happen to Joey.

It's significant because there is something astonishingly childlike about the whole guns-for-defense position. There are two entities gun owners want to be—need to be—ready to fight. First, the government! That's been attempted many times, most seriously from 1861 to 1865, and it never ends well for the people trying to shoot their way out of the federal system. The other group, of course, are the perennial bogeymen—home invaders, rapists, carjackers, and other fearsome creatures—we see on TV.

In 2013, there 11,208 homicides involving firearms.

That same year there were 742 justifiable homicides—most, 461, by law enforcement.5 Keep in mind that the advent of "Stand Your Ground" legislation in a group of states made it much easier to claim a killing was "justified" and the rate did go up,6 yet there were still merely 281 by private citizens.

From that we can imagine that maybe 2.6 percent of the time, when confronted with homicidal violence, gun owners stood up to their attackers and killed them. Bravo! We salute those heroes. Except for George Zimmerman.

However, a study in the American Journal of Public Health reported that individuals with a gun were approximately 4.5 times more like to be shot than someone who was unarmed.

Just living with a gun is, at least statistically, dangerous. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that said an individual's risk of death by homicide increases 40 percent if there are guns in the home. The American Journal of Epidemiology put the number at 90 percent.

It may be true that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But it's also true that people with guns kill people much more easily than people without guns. Including themselves. About half of the 38,000 suicides a year in the US are with firearms. And tots. Tots almost never, ever kill anyone with a bow and arrow, a knife, a club, their bare hands. No, tots don't kill people, but tots with guns do. 


1 "People are getting shot by toddlers on a weekly basis this year," Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post Wonkblog, 10/14/2015.

2 Ibid.

3 "YOU'RE KIDDING! NRA pushes guns on kids as young as Newtown victims in sick 'Youth Day,'" Bill Hutchinson and Daniel Beekman, New York Daily News, 5/5/2013.

4 "Gun Safety—Too Many Kids Die,", 2/4/2000.

5 The police number is probably a radical undercount. A story for another time.

6 Almost the entire increase in the number of "justified" killings under the "Stand Your Ground" legislation was of black people. 

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