“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.