I am a native Texan, and I’ve been around guns all my life.
For my family and neighbors, guns and hunting are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives. Neither, however, is treated as something to be taken lightly. I have a daughter whom I am willing — even eager — to teach how to handle a gun. But I’m not willing for her to die doing so.
I am passing on the same respect for and knowledge of deadly weapons that I have. That should be the norm for anyone, children or adults, who chooses to own or handle a gun. That vital respect was missing, with nightmarish results, in the recent shooting in Arizona in which a 9-year-old lost control of an Uzi she was using at a shooting range, accidentally killing her instructor. To let a 9-year-old touch a submachine gun, with or without adult supervision, is the height of careless, disrespectful gun use.
My daughter recently turned 13, and she is eager to learn to target shoot and hunt. So to celebrate her birthday, I took her for her second gun outing. We headed west near Abilene with my brother, a hunting guide by avocation. As he unpacks his Smith and Wesson 22 magnum pistol and the Ruger 17 HMR rifle, we spray the mosquito juice on and plop face down on the dirt taking turns first with the rifle, then with the pistol.
My nieces and nephews shot javelina, deer, quail, and dove by the time they were 12. My daughter wants to catch up. But she is learning to use a gun safely — target practice with a non-automatic weapon (there’s no reason she should ever use an automatic weapon) before she goes hunting in an open prairie field.
My daughter also took a state-run youth hunting class this summer. The Texas Wildlife Association and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department collaborate to offer youth hunts that are instructive, safe, and affordable. Texas hunter education is $15 a day and is required for all hunters born after 1971. This will increase her level of respect for the sport and firearms. In the fall, I hope to take her dove hunting with her cousins and on a youth hunting trip with Texas Parks and Wildlife.
When I was a kid in Dallas, my parents had a gun closet of a half a dozen hunting rifles. It was always locked. Sometimes my brothers and I would open it to get some other gear, but our respect remained. Although I hunted only occasionally, I learned firearm safety was most important; guns were not toys. I was taught to treat an unloaded gun as if it was loaded. A gun must always be pointed up or down in a safe direction, never towards anyone or anything unless you plan to shoot. And an adult must always be present.
In recent months, several chain stores (Target, Starbucks, and most recently, Kroger) have had to take a stand on whether or not to allow customers to openly carry weapons in their establishments. When I saw photos of mothers carrying AR-15s as they shepherd their small children through Target, I wondered “What are they trying to teach?” Carrying a rifle in a store is not teaching children about safety. Allowing children as young as 8 to target shoot with machine guns — something the Arizona range where the girl was shooting does regularly — is not teaching children about safety. This casual attitude toward firearms and privileging “gun rights” over safety costs lives.
Of course, gun laws need to be strengthened, education increased, and intervention for people who are mentally ill needs more funding. Secure, locked storage in homes is critical. Children having access to guns leads to more than 500 child deaths and 7,500 child hospitalizations a year according to American Academy of Pediatrics. An 18-year-old can buy a military-style rifle before she is legally able to buy a Bud. Required safety education is not even part of the package. Now that’s just plain wrong.
There are alternatives — adults who choose to have guns in their homes should take responsibility for keeping them unloaded, locked, and away from young hands. And as children get older, there are quality programs like the one my daughter took part in or the 4-H Shooting Sports Program, which has a detailed curriculum dealing with every aspect of gun safety and responsibility. A course similar to that should be required to purchase a gun, not just to hunt lawfully. The national dialogue needs to continue and include genuine firearm safety education.
Still, in the case of this contentious issue, the best weapon is a sharp mind. Let’s all lead with this.
Susan Hamilton is an educator and community advocate and lives with her family in Dallas. She is in the Public Voices fellowship of the OpEd Project at Texas Woman’s University.