It was a gorgeous Sunday in March when Misty Uribe’s son watched one of his neighborhood friends accidentally shoot another in the face, she said. As Uribe, 30, sat in her Mooresville, North Carolina, home, never did she think the 8-year-old boy next door would find a loaded rifle in his family shed, take it outside during a game of cops and robbers, and fire it at another boy, she said.
“He was shaking from head to toe,” Uribe said of her son after he returned from playing outside. “He kept saying, ‘So and so shot so and so with a gun.’ I absolutely did not think it was real; I thought it was a Nerf gun or a BB gun, and he just kept saying, ‘No, Mommy, it was a real gun.’”
The victim lived — the bullet entered the boy's cheekbone and exited behind his ear — and the experience changed Uribe's outlook on how to approach gun safety. “I could literally hear him screaming with the door shut, standing in my front yard,” Uribe said, recalling the shooting.
While President Barack Obama announced sweeping gun control executive actions Tuesday in the wake of mass shootings across the U.S., increased attention is also being paid to the number of incidents in which children find guns and accidentally shoot themselves or someone else. At least 265 children did so in 2015 alone, according to some estimates, and some gun control advocates and gun instructors alike say not enough is being done to prevent these deaths. Both groups say more effort needs to be expended by parents to make sure guns are locked up and out of reach, while gun instructors say more needs to be done to train kids about gun safety, including potentially teaching the subject in public schools.
By the end of 2015, about 265 children under 18 picked up a firearm and shot someone by accident, and 83 of those shootings were fatal, according to research compiled by the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. Some 41 of those deaths involved the shooters themselves, and most of the shootings involved toddlers or teens who were playing recklessly with the guns.
Nearly 1.7 million children live in households where guns are stored either loaded or not locked away, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. This makes American children 16 times more likely to be unintentionally killed by a gun, compared with similar countries.
There have been efforts to stop these unintentional deaths. Everytown for Gun Safety, which is backed by media mogul and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reported in 2014 that 28 states and Washington, D.C., had laws that held firearm owners liable if their guns were accessed by children.
While mass shootings marred the U.S. during the past year, Obama has said he was moved to push for more gun regulations in the wake of the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which more than 20 children were killed by shooter Adam Lanza. In his executive action announcement Tuesday, Obama said the federal government will beef up research into smart-gun technology — which allows a gun to be fired only by the intended person — to at least partly decrease the number of times a firearm is discharged unintentionally.
“If we can develop technology that you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do it for guns?” Obama said. "If a child can’t open a bottle of Aspirin, we should make sure that they can’t pull the trigger on a gun.”
After Uribe’s son witnessed the shooting , she joined the gun control advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. While parents can teach children as much as possible that guns are dangerous and they shouldn’t touch them if they find themselves without an adult, she said, parents themselves need to take charge in preventing these shootings by safely locking weapons away and asking other parents if they have guns safely stored before allowing their children to play at those parents’ houses. No matter how much a child is told not to touch a gun, Uribe said, if that child wants to get the gun, and it is easily accessible, that child will go and find it.
“I repeatedly have conversations with my children, not a passing conversation but an eye-to-eye conversation, about the severity of what a gun can do,” Uribe said. “But I think that a lot of children don’t know the severity of everything, and that is why [parents] have to take that extra step into locking guns up.”
Everytown, which describes itself as pro-Second Amendment, also advocates for training smart gun ownership to families that have a gun in their home but haven’t taught their children about it — homes in which children know where the family firearm is and may pick it up to show a friend and unintentionally cause harm. More steps need to be taken by parents to not only keep guns locked away but also to keep ammunition stored away from the gun itself, and teaching children to always act as if a gun is loaded, Valerie Jean-Charles, an Everytown communications associate, said.
“As long as there are children dying due to unintentional shootings, more can always be done to promote healthy gun ownership to Americans,” Jean-Charles said.
For Tom Pooley, a 36-year-old firearms instructor in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with three small children of his own, there is a stigma around children and firearms — a perception that instead of trying to educate children about guns, parents simply try to keep them out of sight, out of mind.
“Don’t try to hide it from them; don’t say, 'If you see a gun, just get away from that,'” Pooley, who has been a firearms instructor for five years, said. “If you say that, it will pique their curiosity. If they have something that looked interesting and you told them not to touch … if they come across it again, they’ll try to handle it.”
Imparting to children the possible devastating effects of firearms early in life, Pooley said, is one of the best ways to prevent potential injury later on, as children will be less likely to play with a gun if they know how dangerous it could be. The fact that there is no required training needed to own a firearm is a significant problem for Pooley, he said, even though some education is needed to drive a car or even cut hair. Having firearms training in public schools, he said, could be a way to make sure kids understand the unnecessary carnage that can come from misusing a gun.
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While teaching children in public schools how to shoot shouldn’t be required, basic gun safety training should be implemented, said Tony Moller, general manager of Virginia Gun Safety, which offers firearms safety training in Franconia, Virginia. Most accidents come from carelessness and ignorance, and that number can be reduced with education, Moller, 50, said.
“We teach children fire safety, poison safety, stranger safety,” Moller said in an email. “When they are old enough we teach them driver's education — including what not to do in a vehicle (like drinking). So why not teach them firearm safety?”