On May 9th -- Mother's Day -- the "anti-gun" Million Mom March will gather on the West Lawn in D.C. in protest. Meanwhile the pro-gun Second Amendment Freedoms for Everyone (SAFER) will rally nearby. Both organizations claim to speak against violence and for children's safety. Yet each espouses diametrically-opposed positions on gun legislation. Who really speaks for children?
A specific piece of legislation will be the focus of debate this year. Title XI of the Federal Violent Crime Control Act of 1994, which banned "assault weapons," is due to expire in September. But the matter that is fundamentally at issue runs much deeper than any one piece of legislation. The basic question is whether private gun ownership is a Constitutional and individual right, or a reckless practice that endangers society and children.
The symbolism of raising that question on Mother's Day is clear. Each group is asking mothers to fulfil an obligation of every parent: to protect children. The sincerity and passion on both sides is palpable but I find the pro-gun arguments to be the most compelling.
For one thing, eliminating guns from society is not feasible. This is not merely because they are so widespread or that Second Amendment arguments for gun ownership are unlikely to be defeated in the near future. It is because guns, if illegal, would thrive on the black market with only law-abiding citizens deprived of ownership. Arguably, this would give criminals an advantage and, so, make society more dangerous. Owning a gun may be one of the best protections against violence that a mother can offer her family.
How effective is that protection? Gun statistics are notorious for their wild variations and the political uses around which they are skewed. The controversial book "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws" (1998) by John R. Lott, Jr. documents many of its sources and, so, invites the skeptical reader to check its accuracy. Lott uses FBI data to argue that violent crime has declined significantly in states that have adopted "shall issue" laws. (Sometimes called "presumptive right-to-carry laws," they allow anyone who meets specific criteria to become licensed.)
Lott argues against the high gun-death in children figures offered by groups such as the MMM. He claims that gun "accidents take the lives of 200 children 14 years of age and under" each year, with children being "14.5 times more likely to die from car accidents."
But, in at least one sense the statistics don't matter. Even a single death is too many.
That's why mothers who choose to own a gun have an obligation to teach their children to respect that weapon as a useful and potentially dangerous tool. Millions of parents own guns. They cannot assume that their children will not find and play with a weapon hidden in a nightstand drawer or on the closet's top shelf. Children will usually find anything that is hidden from them. This may be especially true of guns about which children will be curious from having seen them on television. Admonishing your children to "Don't Touch" does not provide effective protection; indeed, it may make the gun more attractive.
Just as parents teach their children to use matches or the Internet safely so, too, should they provide instruction on any gun in the house.
The place to start is with the manual. Go through it with your child and demonstrate how the controls work on the unloaded weapon. Take away the gun's alluring mystery.
Teach respect for it instead. For example, allow access to the gun but only under adult supervision. Most instruction will be little more than common sense. Make sure your children assume that every gun is loaded and at an appropriate age teach them how to check. Use a good locking device. Most experts recommend storing guns unloaded and in a locked case. Never point the barrel of a gun at anything that isn't being targeted. And make sure fingers remain off the trigger until a gun is ready to shoot. When they reach an appropriate age to engage in supervised target practice at a range, children should check out at what is beyond their targets and immediately to either side.
Parents who do not own a gun should assume that their children will encounter a weapon at some point, perhaps in the house of a friend or a relative. The National Rifle Association offers a program called Eddie Eagle, which teaches a four-step approach to children, "If you see a gun: STOP! Don't Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult."
But don't let the responsibility rest with your child. Join National Ask Day (June 20th). The ASK petition site advises, "Over 40% of homes with children have a gun. Half of those guns are left unlocked and loaded. Is there a gun where your child plays? ASK." Be polite...but do ask.
On Mother's Day, both anti-gun protesters and pro-gun advocates will prompt the question, "What's a mother to do?" Gun expert and mother Sunni Maravillosa answers, "You can't childproof your gun. Instead, gun-proof your children."
Copyright © 2004 Wendy McElroy