“In the Hands of Babes”

By Bobbie Kirkhart

Photo credit: Petras Gagilas
Pho­to cred­it: Petras Gag­i­las

At fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, my sis­ter likes to tell the sto­ry of a time when the men and boys in her fam­i­ly were going out tar­get shoot­ing. The sto­ry goes that – as they were leav­ing one day – her sec­ond son, pis­tol in hand, turned around, expos­ing each fam­i­ly mem­ber, one at a time, to the risk of being shot. “What she doesn’t tell,” my nephew says, “is that I was eight years old at the time.”

My sister’s atti­tude toward guns is not unusu­al in the Unit­ed States. We hear the phrase “respon­si­ble gun own­er­ship” a lot, even when refer­ring to children.

Acci­den­tal shoot­ings are among the top ten caus­es of death for chil­dren in the Unit­ed States. Chil­dren kill their sib­lings, them­selves, and even their parents. 

These are sto­ries from the past year, the kind that hap­pen often:

In Albu­querque, New Mex­i­co, a cou­ple was shot after a two-year-old child grabbed a .45-cal­iber hand­gun from his mother’s purse and fired one shot, strik­ing both his father and his preg­nant mother.
A young boy was acci­den­tal­ly shot after a group of chil­dren play­ing in a Hous­ton apart­ment found an improp­er­ly stored gun and fired it, police said.
In Indi­anapo­lis, a child – iden­ti­fied only as younger than ten – fatal­ly shot his five-year-old sibling.

In instances like the last one – and like my nephew’s – the child has often been giv­en access to the gun after being taught safe­ty rules and markesman­ship. There’s just one thing the par­ents had failed to teach their chil­dren: how to be adults.

My nephew, his two broth­ers and three sons, all live in Arkansas, where gun own­er­ship is the norm among white males (inter­est­ing­ly, white gun own­er­ship is about dou­ble that of blacks and greater than that of Lati­nos). They all own guns and hunt. Their cousins in Okla­homa, still a some­what south­ern state, do not. We’re a typ­i­cal fam­i­ly in that sense. Amer­i­can white men in the South or in rur­al areas own guns. In urban areas they do not.

As far as I know, none of my friends in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia owns a gun. My six nephews in Arkansas all do. My two nephews in Okla­homa do not own any guns. For what it is worth, my nephew in Ger­many does not. This 75% gun own­er­ship in my fam­i­ly – while not in direct line with the nation­al demo­graph­ic – does reflect the fact that South­ern white males have the high­est per­cent­age of gun own­er­ship. In spite of the media image of the black or Lati­no guy knock­ing over a liquor store with a revolver, white men own guns at more than twice the rate as black men (31% to 15%), and both out­pace Lati­nos (11%).

I’m pleased that all of my nephews would like to see some tight­en­ing of our very loose gun con­trol laws. All except my nephew who lives in Ger­many. How­ev­er, I’m not sure he thinks about the need for gun con­trol much.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is vice pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance of Amer­i­ca and serves on the board of Camp Quest, Inc., a sum­mer camp for chil­dren of free­think­ing fam­i­lies. She is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al as well as a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.