In some families, it is a rite of passage. In others, it is another skill to be learned on the road to adulthood. Still in others, it is a safety measure to prevent disaster. I am talking of course about teaching your children to handle and shoot firearms.
A treasured part of upbringing to some parents, and a nigh-crazy concept to others, this is certainly another brick in the great wall of the gun debate.
No matter where you stand on the matter philosophically, I can 100% guarantee you that teaching your children to safely handle a gun, and how to be safe around guns, is the single best thing you can do to prevent an accident involving them.
Ethically, you have a mandate as their parent to prepare them for the dangers, trials and tribulations out in the world, and guns can certainly fit into that list, with nearly a billion found in every corner of every land.
Since guns are inextricably a part of humanity’s landscape, for better or worse, it is time to stop worrying about the intersection of kids and guns and instead teach them to navigate it safely and proficiently.
Just the Facts
As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, this article will not contain any philosophical musings about children and weapons or any such navel-gazing.
Sure, you might wax and wonder poetic about the loss or desolation of youth and what it says about us and our world that children even have to worry about such things and ooh, and ahh, and aieee!
Enough. It does not help, and while you might feel great about yourself for tying on the “I Care More and Harder” ribbon it will not help you or anyone solve what it ultimately a practical problem.
The “problem” is that we live in a country (if you are an American) and a world positively swimming with guns, with most estimates placing about 875 million +/- just bobbing around out there waiting to party.
Even though the U.S. is actually quite safe when it comes to risk of gun related death and your chance of dying by gunfire is low (unless you are suicidal or a gang-banger) the chances that your child will, at some point in their lives, encounter a gun is actually quite high, because they are so common.
While this sounds scary, your children will face statistically more probable killers day in and day out with nary a whimper or a worry, things like cars, alcohol, doctors (doctors?! Yep, lookup medical malpractice statistics) and more.
While most parent get anxious when their kids grow into teens and start driving, they likely don’t stop and really ponder just how seemingly dangerous the operation of a motor vehicle is; this is because they have taught and prepared their child to safely and responsibly handle the task at hand, minimizing the risks to an acceptable level.
Teaching your child about firearms in order to responsibly deal with them is no different than teaching them the rules of the road and operation of a motor vehicle to prepare them for the highways.
Education is always the father of preparation. Risk will always endure, but with teaching you can drastically reduce it. Don’t let your child’s first encounter with a gun be an exploratory or “I’ll figure it out” event.
Where to Begin
For those of us who grew up in shooting, pro-gun households, we will likely have all kinds of fond memories when it comes to our own education in guns. People like us probably have a fair plan already in mind for getting the kiddos up to speed on gun safety, first, as a mandate, and then into shooting proper if they show desire and interest.
For those who didn’t grow up in a gun-positive household, or who came to guns later on in adult life, your playbook is probably blank except for some doodles in the margin. How do you teach a child about guns and gun safety? When is the right age? So many questions! Arggh!
Relax. It is easier than you might be thinking, and while it will require your total, complete and unwavering attention, it is a fairly simple affair.
This assumes a few things, of course. It assumes first and foremost that you are skilled and competent. If you are not, or your confidence about the prospect is shaky, leave it to a professional: seek the assistance of a good trainer who has experience teaching children and a dedicated children’s class. Obviously, you should attend this course with them to improve the experience.
The second assumption is that your child is capable of following your instructions and mastering their impulses. If there is anything, anything at all, that leads you to question their ability to follow your instructions implicitly, you might want to hold off until you are certain. This varies greatly child to child.
I know some children (like your author) were good and attentive at very young ages, and can start on safety as young as four years old. I know other parents who wanted to start their child on the road, but due to some challenges with this one in particular they had to hold off until the boy was 12, almost a teenager.
There is nothing wrong with either, but it is on you to know your child. So long as you are in control, you can always pump the brakes and halt their education, if they simply do not have the attitude or aptitude.
Your solution for safety at that point, at least in your own household, is 100% fulltime positive control of the gun(s), period. On your person or under lock and key, no exceptions. Anything less will invite disaster and tragedy.
So long as your child can listen and understand your instructions, and then follow them (within reason for their age and development) you are probably in good to start them in on gun safety, and perhaps even some basic skills.
How to Begin Basic Safety
When you have made the decision to start educating your child on guns and gun safety, you should begin, well, at the beginning, explaining it to them in an age appropriate fashion and doing so as you would anything else.
If they are not quite ready to begin learning use and shooting, you should only, only ever let the child interact with the gun when it is unloaded and you have quadruple checked it.
If you are a regular shooter, and say have come home from the range and are proceeding to clean your guns, your child may be very interested in what you are doing. Tell them. Let them watch and interact with them, but set the ground floor rules and reinforce them every single time:
- No Touching Ever Without Dad’s/Mom’s Permission
- Never Let the Gun Point at You
- Never Let the Gun Point at Somebody Else
- Always Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger (if allowed to handle supervised)
You can and should explain that guns are very dangerous, and will badly hurt themselves or Mom or Dad, and that they must, never, ever touch one without Mom or Dad there. Make analogies to knives and hot stoves, anything else in the “hazard” category that you have already covered with them.
When they are interacting with your guns in a supervised setting and make a mistake, assuming it is not horseplay or some other attitude failure, correct them, but do so gently.
Everyone started somewhere, and you don’t want their overriding sense of guns to be associated with pain and discontent no matter what happens.
Any infractions to the rules otherwise (such as getting caught trying to gain access to a gun or a report of them handling a gun without permission) should be dealt with harshly: the world will, after all, be a very harsh taskmaster, and Mom and Dad will not always be around to care and help them along.
The point of all this is twofold: first, it will lay the foundations of safe interaction with a firearm wherever and however they might encounter one later. Second, it begins to dissolve the “forbidden fruit” mentality which most parents are familiar with.
Children are possessed of immense natural curiosity and a desire to get into things that are hidden, not allowed and squirreled away. Telling a child to “leave that alone” or “stay out of ‘x’” is a surefire, foolproof way to set them on the trail of breaking into it.
One thing you must do is warn and train your child so that they will not falter or get into trouble should they encounter a gun at a friend’s house or perhaps another relative’s.
You must take the time to have the conversation with the supervising adults and find out about the quantity and status of the guns there. Even then, we cannot trust or count on them being locked up: people do make mistakes.
In these instances, teach the excellent and proven steps from the NRA’s Eddie Eagle child safety program. These steps are extremely easy to remember and will serve the child well no matter where they may be. Teach your child the following steps to immediately do should they ever encounter a gun anywhere but with Mom or Dad. The steps are:
- Don’t Touch!
- Leave the Area!
- Tell an Adult!
It is that simple, easy to practice and effective! Make sure you review these rules regularly with your child.
By granting the child access to the guns in a controlled educational setting, you remove mystery and allow them to fulfill that natural curiosity. This in turn will greatly dampen their urge to investigate in a clandestine manner, aka be bad when you aren’t around or not looking.
Children certainly tend to want their parent’s approval and by giving them an opportunity to earn praise and reward by following instructions (being safe) you will be well on the way to reinforcing positive behavior loops.
How to Begin Basic Use and Shooting
This may begin soon after safety education or sometime, even years, after. It all depends on the child, again. The point of starting your children down the road to safe and effective handling of firearms is to set them up for success in life should they even need to handle a gun (whatever their preferences are later) and further improve their safety.
Again, the world is awash with guns, all kinds, all corners of the globe. Let’s deal with what is, now, not how we wish it was and don’t let your kids retreat into La-La Land and eschew essential skills.
When the time comes to get them behind a gun, you need to do a few things to make sure everyone is safe and has a positive experience. Again, experience! Not a test or an info-dump.
The goal is to let them shoot, do so safely and hopefully have a good time doing it while proving to themselves and to you that they can be safe with a gun.
The first thing you’ll need is a small, light, and quiet-ish gun. The go-to is a .22 LR. If you can get subsonic or even CB cap loads for it so much the better. Handgun or rifle is a choice I will leave to you, both have pros and cons.
Rifles may be harder for the child to handle and operate, but their length gives you a little more to hang on to in case you need to intervene or assist with holding and aiming.
Handguns are much easier for them to hold up on their own, but the cramped quarters on the gun itself leaves little room for you to help them hold it and makes snatching for it to prevent an unsafe direction mishap risky.
Choose based on your child and your preference and comfort level. If you can afford or have a child-specific gun that fits them ideally, by all means use that. Do not, under any circumstances, use a gun that recoils heavily or sounds like the sky is falling.
That is a sure way to have a bad time with your nascent shooter there. If they do well and are excited and gung-ho, you might let them try something a little bigger for kicks, but save any truly hard-recoiling guns for later in their travels.
To the Range!
Next, once you have the child out on the range, I recommend a logical progression for them to work through, think of it like a crawl-walk-run exercise:
- First, they will only pick up or hold the gun, and fire it with you assisting.
- Then they will load, make ready, and fire with you assisting.
- Lastly they will load, make ready and fire with you just observing, assuming they can physically handle the gun by themselves.
These phases may come hot on the heels of each other or be spread out over months, even years, depending on the child’s development and progression. No matter what kind of gun you are using, I strongly recommend that you load only one round into the gun at a time, even if the gun is a magazine fed semi-auto.
This helps mitigate the opportunity for errant little fingers touching off more than one round in succession. As the child improves and gains competency, you can load more, starting with two, then five and so on.
As far as the shooting itself, this is the time to introduce the Five Rules of Gun Handling, and also begin to teach them the basics of marksmanship, though you should save most of the minutiae for a session or two down the road assuming they are interested in what they are doing. The Five Rules are the inviolable standard by which all good shooters are bound and judged:
- Always Treat a Gun as if it is Loaded.
- Never Let the Gun Point at Anything You Are Not Willing to Destroy.
- Keep Your Finger Off the Trigger Until You Are Ready to Fire.
- Know Your Target and What is Behind It
- Keep your Gun on Safe Until Ready to Fire
A little more going on than our simplified set up above, but easy enough to learn and memorize for sharp children and older kids.
For the shooting itself, it is a must that it is fun and pleasant. Even so, don’t force the child to shoot if they become anxious or frightened. They may want to see Mom or Dad shoot first, or might get a bad case of nerves and chicken out. That’s alright.
When the time comes for them to shoot, be sure to put up a target. My favorite target for training children is a giant, plain white piece of paper at close range. A real no-miss affair.
This way, you have no fear that they won’t hit the target and if they align the gun even in a cursory manner they will see the results of their hard work. It is a great feeling! One they will hopefully remember forever. I sure remember mine…
Anyway, another good target you might make use of is a something reactive, assuming you can set it up safely and they are capable of hitting it. Large chunks of ice made from common household containers and taken to the range in a cooler will shatter like glass with great fanfare and then melt away harmlessly.
A thin-skinned jug or can of water or some other fluid can be used with similar effect. Either, though, are great fun to shoot and will definitely reinforce the point that, no matter how fun target shooting can be, guns are not toys.
Beyond the Basics
There are plenty of junior shooters who take to the gun like a duck to water and this might wind up becoming a family pastime or something that the child wants to pursue on their own. Especially teenage shooters, there are all kinds of disciplines and events that they can get into as a hobby or extracurricular activity.
Hunting is one such honorable endeavor steeped in responsibility, respect for self and quarry, and confidence. Your junior shooter might even desire defensive or combative shooting training to hone the skills that are most elemental to using a firearm. There is nothing wrong with any of this so long as you have a good handle on your child’s heart and mind.
Tens of thousands of young shooters take to field each and every day with no ill effects and no harm coming to them. Done right, you will have created memories they will treasure forever but more importantly imbued in them the wisdom and skills to properly and safely handle a firearm no matter the situation they find themselves in.
The value of this cannot be overstated, as it is the only thing that can even begin to guarantee their safety in certain casual or social encounters with guns.
Also, not for nothing, in the gravest extreme, should they God-forbid find themselves threatened by an evil person and they have access to the gun and know how to use it, they stand as good a chance as anyone of putting the villain down or driving them off.
As terrible as it is to contemplate, history and even recent events have furnished us with ample examples of children saving themselves and their families using their skills with a gun.
In the event that a truly earth-shaking and society-flattening event happens, in the absence of rule of law it will be a cold-comfort knowing that your child at least has the means to protect themselves from larger stronger threats, Teenage children may also serve as ready gun hands in defense of home and family in such dark times, if they have the skills.
Teaching your child gun safety as soon as they are old enough to comprehend and implement is the single best thing you can do to prevent them or someone else falling victim to a terrible accident.
Later, teaching them to effectively and safely use a firearm will further keep them from harm as well as equip them with a useful skill with one of the world’s most common tools. Like any tools, weapons are either a benefit or a hazard: see to it that they are no hazard for your child by teaching them right while they are young.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.