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Amid concerns about kids and guns, some say training is the answer

A father helps his son steady a firearm at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual convention on May 28, 2022, in Houston, Texas. Exposing children to guns comes with risks, but some firearms enthusiasts say they'd prefer to train kids to use guns responsibly.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
A father helps his son steady a firearm at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual convention on May 28, 2022, in Houston, Texas. Exposing children to guns comes with risks, but some firearms enthusiasts say they'd prefer to train kids to use guns responsibly.

Guns now kill more kidsthan car wrecks, a trend highlighting the growing concern about increased gun suicides and shootings among youth. What to do about it? Keeping guns out of children's hands is one way. Some people take a different approach: train kids to handle guns responsibly.

Jackson Beard, director of training at Securité Gun Club in Woodinville, Wash., teaches introductory classes for kids as young as eight. The class includes the standard gun safety message for kids that the National Rifle Association has preached for decades with its "Eddie the Eagle" cartoons about what kids should do if they find a gun: stop, don't touch, run away and tell a grown up.

But Beard says real gun safety education needs to go further and show kids — with their parents' permission — how to fire a weapon.

"If we don't teach our kids that, who will? And the answer is, no one," he says. "And I would rather raise a responsible generation of gun owners than a generation of gun owners that has never been exposed to the safety message, the respect message, the message of how these guns are to be properly used."

California and Illinoishave passed laws in recent years banning gun manufacturers from marketing guns to children. California's law was challenged on First Amendment grounds, but the Illinois law, sponsored by state Senate President Don Harmon, is still in effect.

"We were concerned with the overt marketing of firearms to children," Harmon says. State lawmakers had a collection of example advertisements, including for the JR-15, a child-sized .22 caliber rifle described by some as a scaled down AR-15.

"There's no doubt that this is an attempt to indoctrinate children and create a culture where assault weapons are not just for parents but for the little ones, too," Harmon says.

Harmon's gun marketing law reflects broader concerns over how kids are being introduced to guns. Top of mind is the recent conviction of Jennifer and James Crumbley, in Michigan, who supplied the handgun their son used in a school shooting. The Illinois and California laws inspired some target shooting organizations to post notices on their websites, warning away residents from those states under the age of 18 — similar to warnings against minors visiting websites for cigarettes or alcohol.

Beard says the groups putting up those warnings are "over-lawyered."

"I have to take issue with the [idea] that education is somehow 'marketing firearms to kids.' It demonstrates a misunderstanding or even a irrational fear of firearms as tools," he says.

State laws vary, but it's generally legal for kids to shoot at ranges, as long as a responsible adult is present. And some very wholesome American institutions, including 4-H, have a tradition of promoting shootingfor "juniors," as they're often called.

Ashley Hall, coordinator of shooting sports for 4-H in Washington state, says the kids are taught safety first.

"Every single action from picking up a rifle all the way to firing it when they're on the range in kind of very carefully scripted and monitored, and it's like a dance," she says.

Hall is aware of the concerns about kids being fascinated with guns in the wrong way. She says she would never want her program to be "flashy," but it can still be appealing.

"So kids come in, and maybe they've never fired a rifle before, you still see the same physical reactions, the anticipation, all these really intense emotions, right?" she says.

Those intense emotions are something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to understand better. The agency is researching how kids in rural areas relate to guns.

"The adolescents we spoke to seemed to understand the rules," says Elizabeth Weybright, an associate professor at Washington State University who is part of that effort.

But she says even though kids know the rules, they admit they don't all follow them.

"I would say the two more unacceptable things that emerged were carrying a handgun for neither self-defense or recreation ... and then carrying to cause harm or intimidate," Weybright says.

Hall of 4-H is helping with the CDC study of kids and guns, and is eager to see what it finds. In the meantime, her philosophy is one of realism.

"The enthusiasm is already there. They're coming to me already interested in this topic," she says. "Firearms, handguns, rifles, hunting, military — all this stuff already exists in this world. And my job is to teach them to be adults in the world that they actually live in — not the one I wish they lived in."

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Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.