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May 31st, 2013

Guns Made for Kids Spark Safety Debate


Gun manufacturers, like nearly every other industry, have strategies to market to kids and encourage young people to buy certain brands early and stick with them through the years.

A boy fires a gun at a shooting range during summer camp. Photo via Flickr user John Trainor

A boy fires a gun at a shooting range during summer camp. Photo via Flickr user John Trainor

Five year old Kristian Sparks accidentally shot and killed his two year old sister Caroline in Burkesville, Ky., last month.  The weapon was a child-sized rifle his parents had given him for his fourth birthday. The gun had not been stored safely, and was instead propped up in a corner with a bullet still inside.

The gun, a Crickett rifle, is one of two brands Keystone Sporting Arms LLC markets to children.

While unsafe gun practices were responsible for this tragic accident, no legal action can be taken against Kristian’s parents. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence website states that Kentucky law “does not impose criminal liability for negligent storage of a firearm, even if a child gains access to the firearm and causes an injury or death.”

While the law prohibits an adult from giving a handgun to a minor, it does not extend the prohibition to rifles or shotguns. The state of Kentucky has no minimum age requirement for the possession of rifles or shotguns, and there is no federal law – one that covers all 50 states — that prevents child access.

The incident has raised the question of whether marketed guns to children creates future responsible gun owners, or whether it irresponsibly puts dangerous weapons into the hands of children too young to understand their real-life consequences.

“Learning how to use a gun at a young age has been common for generations in rural Kentucky,” said County-Judge-Executive John A. Phelps Jr. to The Courier-Journal of Lewisville, Ky. Seen by many as an essential cultural component of rural tradition, marketing guns to children and a child possessing his or her own “first rifle,” is not questioned.

On the other side, Dr. Denise Dowd, an E.R. pediatrician and co-author of the American Academy of Pediatricians policy on children and guns, told the Courier-Journal that certain things are simply too dangerous for young children to understand how to operate.

“We don’t give our kids the keys to our car, and there is a good reason for it,” she argued.

Gun advocates push for education, not regulation

Safety and education are central themes on gun websites, which argue that teaching safe gun habits early on leads to responsible gun owners later in life.

From the Crickett website, some of their options for gun colors.

From the Crickett website, some of their options for gun styles.

Keystone Firearms LLC, the company that makes Crickett and Chipmunk brands which are especially marketed for children, says its goal is to “instill gun safety in the minds of youth shooters and encourage them to gain the knowledge and respect that hunting and shooting activities require and deserve.”

The company’s website dedicates a section to safety and education with videos such as “McGruff the Crime Dog on Gun Safety for grades K-6.” The canine character’s messages “Kids shouldn’t even touch guns without adult supervision” or “Kids and guns are a dangerous combination” are repeated in the video. Messages for adults include locking unloaded guns and ammunition in separate safe locations.

Steve Sanetti, president of National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), agrees with this message. NSSF launched a program called Project Child Safe in 2003 to “educate gun owners on their responsibility to keep their guns out of the wrong hands, and provide the tools to help them do so.”

Medical professionals say that a house with no guns is safest for children

But if safety and education are simply encouraged and not included in the law, gun control advocates fear there is little to prevent citizens from making unsafe decisions with their purchases.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “the absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents.”

According to an article published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, a gun in the home makes the risk of accidental death four times higher. When complete absence of guns in the home cannot be achieved, researchers find that safe practices can reduce risk of injury.

A study by Journal for the American Medical Association found that safety practices such as keeping firearms locked and unloaded with ammunition stored separately have been proven to reduce unintentional injury in homes with children and teenagers where guns are stored. A separate study by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997 found that child access prevention laws could decrease accidental shootings of children by as much as 23%.

— Compiled by Audrey Ford for NewsHour Extra

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