Gun control and parenting: Playing with fire in free America

By Elaine Nava, Patricia Boateng and Shamene Rajendrabose

DmyTo/Getty Images/iStockphoto Exhibition and sale of weapons.

“If you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrelled shotgun. If there is a problem, just walk out on the balcony, walk out, put that double-barrelled shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house. I promise you, whoever’s coming in is not. Buy a shotgun. Buy a shotgun” said the President-elect Joe Biden, in 2013, in an interview with Parents Magazine.

It is also in the United States that approximately 16,000 children are killed or wounded every year. 3 million people are exposed to gun violence every year – and this has an impact on their mental health. We all know that the United States is the nation with the biggest number of weapons in civilian hands. Children have easy access to guns. 

“If you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrelled shotgun. If there is a problem, just walk out on the balcony, walk out, put that double-barrelled shotgun and fire two blasts outside the house. I promise you, whoever’s coming in is not. Buy a shotgun. Buy a shotgun” said the President-elect Joe Biden, in 2013, in an interview with Parents Magazine.

Joe Biden to Parents Magazine (2013)

Let’s focus on the role of parents and how they should take responsibility for free access to weapons.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the principal authors of the American Constitution, wrote in the late 18th century for the first draft of the Constitution that no free man should ever be prevented from using weapons on his own land. The right of American citizens to bear arms was legally enshrined in 1791, when the Second Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. It states: “Being a well-prepared militia necessary for the security of a free state, the right to have responsibility for a weapon should not be infringed”. 

For two of the founding fathers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the purpose of this right was precisely to guarantee the citizen his own defense.

However, when you raise children in an environment where gun access is easy like the United States, some red lights should be lit. The parents’ role is essential in children’s growth and development. They have a great influence on them. It is important to have a strong relationship with our children as they grow older. Usually when we think about child learning and development, we think about schooling and institutions outside the home. But if we look at where children spend most of their time, especially during their first and most critical years, it is in a family environment. Parents play a critical role throughout these development years. They are the number one influence on children.

How far do parents respond to their children’s actions when it comes to access to weapons?

A 2004 report by the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education found that more than two-thirds of students who used guns in violent acts at school got those guns from their own home or that of a relative. This has led to questions about legal responsibility in such circumstances. Do the weapons’ owners bear any liability? The research also shows nearly 2 million American children live in homes with guns that are not stored responsibly. Children may thus easily access  these guns and shoot themselves or others. 

According to the Pew Social Trends 2015 review called Parenting in America, about four-in-ten parents express concerns about their children getting beat up or attacked (45%). Smaller but substantial shares of parents worry that their children might get shot at some point. About three-in-ten (31%) say this is a concern. About a quarter (27%) worry their children might get in trouble with the law. It is enough to see the trend of school mass shootings. The shootings of Columbine (1999) by 18-year-old boys, Virginia Tech (2007) by a 23-year-old boy, Sandy Hook (2012) by a 20-year-old boy, and Parkland (2018) by a 19-year-old boy, among others, are on the list of crime scenes. It is therefore worth asking where the parents of those young aggressors were when these shootings happened. Some may immediately judge that “it must be the parents’ fault”.  

In the United States, parents are morally responsible for damage caused by their children but for those somewhat morally challenged are not legally responsible. In the United Kingdom, there is the common law rule. It is that the parents are only responsible for the actions of their child if they knew that the child had planned to act in a certain way. This rule was established when a child stabbed another child with a knife in the 18th century. The courts held that the parents were responsible for the acts of the child because the parents knew that the child was prone to violence. In the United States, on top of the common law, there are State laws. They are called parental responsibilities laws. In the United States, the Justice Department suggested the creation of a term to identify the perpetrators of the massacres as active gunmen, being identified as persons actively involved in the killing or attempted killing of persons in a confined and populated area. However, there does not exist a category for parents in this context. 

In any case, parents are the first and leading educators. Most of the kids who commit school violence come from households with certain alterations in the communication codes and relations between the parents. Even if the parent is not the owner of the weapon, the responsibility to survey their children’s emotional and intellectual development is a main responsibility for them. Parents cannot evade responsibilities to the institution’s education; training in values, principles and beliefs develops in the family. In schools, parents deepen and give meaning pedagogically and didactically. 

An example of social behaviour on this topic can be seen in a video posted on the YouTube platform entitled 7 Year Old’s First Time Shooting AR-15. The content has more than 7.5 million views and a majority of ‘likes’, 55,000, compared to ‘dislikes’, 11,000. “You are a very good father“, “Congratulations, you’re raising a future responsible shooter“, “She’s going to become a great woman, God bless your family“. In the comments on YouTube, most are positive. What they applaud is a video in which a father teaches his 7-year-old daughter how to fire an AR.15 assault rifle, one of the best-selling rifles in the United States.

Jama Network, a medical journal, reported a survey on household guns. In 2002, a paediatric clinic in Alabama conducted a research to assess parents’ accuracy about their children’s behaviour with household guns. 314 parent-child dyads agreed to take part and the results are interesting. They highlight that parents were neither fully aware of the situations in their homes nor of the risks their children were running. 201 of them claimed to have a gun in their houses. 

More than half of the children younger than 10 years (73%) and older children (79%) declared they knew the exact storage location while the 39% of parents reported the opposite, i.e. that their kids ignored where they locked the firearms. Moreover, 22% of parents reported that their children had never handled a household gun, but they were contradicted by the 36% of surveyed children. Although less than half, it is alarming that a significant number of parents are unaware that their children know where they store their guns and that they have handled them at least once.

This panorama clearly points up a lack of communication between parents and children and the fact that they do not talk or do not talk enough about firearms safety. Many parents do not understand the key role they occupy in their children’s life when it comes to firearm education. Before taking place, in some extreme cases, such as school massacres or murders, the first contact with a gun takes place at home and parents do not even realize it. Living in an environment where it is normal to have a weapon in the house is extremely dangerous. It is necessary to educate kids since their childhood on this issue, for their safety and that of others. 

According to Healthy Children, “there were at 241 unintended shootings by children in 2019, causing more than 100 deaths and nearly 150 injuries. Adolescents, in particular, are at a higher risk for suicide when there is a gun in the home.” 

Obviously, the best solution to prevent these unpleasant consequences is not to keep any weapons at home at all. If this is not possible, it is important to ensure that children cannot access them by keeping unloaded guns locked in a separate place from the ammunition. Parents must protect their children from the dangers of gun violence. The conversation may seem awkward but it can save lives. The numbers point out that children have too easy access to gun.  Kids will find them no matter how well they are hidden. Children with behavioural problems are at greater risk. Indeed, children with mood disorders can be tempted. Teaching children to hold or use a weapon is out of the question, they “are not capable or responsible enough to handle a potentially lethal weapon”. The consequences are clear, the problem should be addressed as a public health issue and the new President should rethink his calling to “buy a shotgun” when he takes the oath of office in January 2021.

References:

  1. Joe Biden on Shotguns, Safeguards, and Smart Parenting. Interview by Michael Kress. Parents Magazine February 20, 2013. Available at https://www.parents.com/kids/safety/joe-biden-on-shotguns-safeguards-and-smart-parenting/
  2.  Final report and findings of the safe school initiative: implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. 2004. United States Secret Service and Department of Education (online)https://www.secretservice.gov/data/protection/ntac/ssi_final_report.pdf (accessed in November 2020)
  3. Guns in the Home By: Judy Schaechter (2018) Available at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/at-home/Pages/Handguns-in-the-Home.aspx#:~:text=There%20were%20at%20241%20unintended,deaths%20and%20nearly%20150%20injuries.&text=In%20fact%2C%20a%20gun%20in,a%20burglar%20or%20other%20criminal.
  4. Public Mass Shootings in the United States: Selected Implications for Federal Public Health and Safety Policy 2013 (online)  https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43004.pdf (accessed in November 2020)
  5. Parenting in America (2015) Pew Research Center (online) (accessed in November 2020) https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/parenting-in-america/
  6. 7 Year Old’s First Time Shooting AR-15. Hous of guns (2014) (accessed in November 2020) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttMuvmspa8o

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