“It was real, Mama. It smelled like a real gun. But we didn’t shoot it, we only held it,” my son tells me while sitting in his bubble bath. He is five-years-old. After asking multiple questions, he continued to insist that the gun was real.
My worst nightmare has come true—he was playing with a gun with his friends unsupervised.
It is summer, and our neighborhood has lots of kids around the same age. It is perfect because we all open our doors, and the kids run in and out of each other’s houses—never getting bored or bothering the parents. It’s an ideal setup. Sure, parents are nearby, but nobody is hovering. Like a pack of roving wild animals, this pack of boys moves in a group from house to house, and they often get into trouble. If someone starts to cry, all of the parents emerge from our homes and the appropriate parent scoops up their crying child and play resumes.
One of the benefits of moving to Sweden, a country with extremely strict gun laws, is that I assumed we were minimizing our exposure to accidental gun shootings. In the US, nearly every day, there is a report of an accidental shooting between a child and a friend or sibling with an unsecured and loaded weapon—and it is almost always fatal. In 2015, at least 265 children under the age of 18 picked up a gun and shot it unintentionally. Eighty-five (32%) of those shootings were fatal.
If we still lived in the US, I would be having regular gun safety conversations with my kids. I would be casually chatting with other parents about if they own guns and if they do, are they kept locked away from the ammunition. The fact is, in 2015, 41% of households reported ownership of at least one gun. Whether or not the gun(s) in each household was safely secured wasn’t assessed.
Living in Sweden, where gun ownership is strictly regulated, and expensive, I have always felt that our children are in a much safer environment regarding firearms and haven’t mentioned gun safety that much to my kids. Our neighborhood is quite close to the area’s hunting grounds, and a few of our neighbors are avid hunters.
It was only until my son mentioned that he held “a real gun” that I realized how little I had provided him in the way of gun safety and awareness. We have not been having regular conversations about gun safety because I assumed the strict gun laws and law-abiding Swedish culture was enough. However, people can make mistakes and kids have a way of finding things you don’t expect them to find.
We cannot control what our children do when they are out of our eyesight, but it is our job as parents to try to prepare them to respond appropriately in different situations. We teach them how to cross the road safely and it is also our job to educate them on gun safety. Kids are going to play, explore, and get themselves into situations with varying degrees of danger, but there is very little margin for error when it comes to guns. Even the slightest mistake can be fatal.
Gazing off into the bubble bath, once my blood pressure stabilized a bit, I sent my husband a text asking him to have a conversation with the neighbors on his way home from work. “What should I say?” he asked me, hoping I would have the magical answer. To be honest, I had no idea, but I pretended to be wise and replied, “Just have a conversation. Don’t be accusatory. He said he played with a real gun, so we need to follow up on this. We need to find out the truth because I doubt he played with an actual gun, but he is insisting.”
My husband had a calm, blameless, even-toned conversation with the mother. She was very confused as to what he was talking about because no, they did not own any guns. She completely understood our concern and appreciated the discussion. Eventually, they discovered that the “real gun” the kids were playing with was in fact, a cap gun. Hence, the “real gun” smell and all.
In this case, the need for concern was minimal. However, the approach was correct. There is no harm in parents have conversations about gun safety when your children are playing together regularly—unsupervised or with a parent present. We should also be talking about water safety, car safety, and a whole host of other hazards as part of our conversations with other parents.
And in all cases, no matter where you live or how strict the gun laws are, every parent should have a conversation about gun safety with their children. Young kids need a different approach when talking about gun safety than teenagers.
Here is what we told our kids:
1) Real guns are not toys. Many toy guns look real.
Not playing with toy guns is a non-starter. My son loves water guns, Nerf guns, and now, cap guns. We are now reminding him often that toy guns can be fun, but real guns are deadly, and that is their purpose. I flat out told my kids that if they shot a real gun, they could die or kill someone else.
2) If you see a gun, leave it alone and tell an adult.
We are repeating this message on a weekly basis and working it casually into various conversations. My son can’t tie his shoes—I don’t expect him to discern the difference between a real gun or a toy gun or a loaded or unloaded weapon. It’s best that he avoids all guns—toy or real—until an adult can verify it is safe.
3) Accidents happen all of the time.
No matter how careful or safe we think we are around guns, accidents can always happen, and it is why we never play with guns. Toy guns that have been previously approved by my husband or me are okay, and those are the only guns my son can play with.
Gun safety is important worldwide, and it is something we should be discussing with our children. Fortunately, there are lots of organizations that have resources available for educating young children about proper gun safety and awareness.
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