Let’s Teach Philly Kids to Use Guns — Properly

Preaching fear and abstinence hasn’t worked. How about creating a culture of healthy respect?


Over the weekend, a 2-year-old boy in West Philadelphia shot and killed his 11-year-old sister. The gun —a .357 Magnum — had been stored on top of a fridge; according to reports it was then moved to a master bedroom in the family home. One way or another, it ended up in the toddler’s hands. He fired it, of course. Now both of their lives are destroyed.

It’s a stupid, senseless tragedy. It never should’ve happened. We can all agree on this, right?

So I want to offer a proposal I believe might well reduce the number of gun deaths in Philadelphia. It’s also a provocative proposal. I suspect our gun debate is too polarized for it to become reality, at least for now. But I suspect it would reduce the number of stupid accidents we see — and, by teaching respect for the deadly power of firearms, might even lead to better behavior overall among this city’s criminal elements.

This proposal: Every junior-high student in Philadelphia public schools should take a gun-safety class.

Still with me?

I base this proposal on a few observations:

• We’re never going to get guns off the streets of Philadelphia, at least not soon. Even if it were practical to grab every firearm out there — it’s not — it would still be a political impossibility: Every time this city tries to ensure that criminals can’t get their hands on a weapon of personal destruction, the NRA and its minions in Harrsburg pass some new law rendering the city’s action illegal. Is that obscene? Sure. But it is what it is. Any effort to slow gun deaths in the city will have to deal with reality on the ground.

• While there are plenty of guns circulating in Philadelphia, there are also plenty of guns — per-capita, at least — in my home state of Kansas. Yet there are relatively few gun deaths there: As best I can tell, 9.9 gun deaths per 100,000 residents in Kansas, compared to 24.3 in Philadelphia. (The comparisons aren’t quite exact, but I think the disparity between those two numbers is probably in the neighborhood of correct.) Why?

One of the reasons, surely, is that cities are simply more violent places: Living cheek by jowl can produce short tempers; short tempers can produce violence.

But it’s also true that my rural friends have built a culture of gun safety that goes hand-in-hand with the culture of gun ownership. The clearest expression of this: To get a hunter’s license in Kansas, you must complete a 10-hour hunter safety course — heavy, of course, with lessons on how to handle firearms safely and respectfully. Some classes are taught by the NRA, but a hunter safety course was offered in my rural Kansas middle school back in the late 1980s.

Such education, of course, is probably why countries like Switzerland — where most residents are trained to serve in the militia — can have high rates of gun ownership without correspondingly high death rates.

So let’s train Philadelphia teens to use guns correctly.

The counter-argument, I expect, will be that such classes might glamorize guns or produce a better-trained class of gangsters in our city. I doubt it. Guns are widespread, and using one once is the easiest thing in the world — whether you know how to load a gun or set its safety, there isn’t a man, woman, or child in the universe who doesn’t know how to pull a trigger once.

Education, meanwhile, stands a good chance of reducing accidental deaths. The entire point of hunter safety classes, after all, is to ensure that nobody gets injured or dies because they — or somebody close to them — was mishandling a gun. I suspect, too, that inculcating a sense of respect for guns into education might make young people less likely to use them lightly, to understand the permanence of settling a beef with a bullet.

Will it solve everything? Of course not. But it might help.

The principle is the same as providing clean needles to drug addicts. We may find it distasteful, but it might reduce the public health harms of doing nothing.

We don’t teach respect for guns in Philadelphia, not really. We teach fear, we preach abstinence, we mount political crusades and there are good reasons we do so. But none of that seems to work. So let’s try something new, not because we love guns, but because we respect their power — and we love our children.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter. 

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  • mickey_meador

    “Every time this city tries to ensure that criminals can’t get their hands on a weapon of personal destruction, the NRA and its minions in Harrsburg pass some new law rendering the city’s action illegal. ”
    This write has some valid points but to blast the NRA shows his misinformation on the goals and accomplishments of that and many other gun organizations. The NRA and others stand firm defending our rights and have strongly encouraged teaching firearm safety and marksmanship.

    • Joel Mathis

      ” The NRA and others stand firm defending our rights and have strongly encouraged teaching firearm safety and marksmanship.”

      Sure. AND it also lobbies Harrisburg to make sure that even commonsense local regulations —like reporting lost or stolen guns — are made illegal. The NRA doesn’t just protect legitimate gun owners; it also protects many illegitimate gun possessors.

      • mickey_meador

        matthew brandley hits the obvious target of crime control. Prove the NRA or any other pro gun orgs protect illegimate gun possessors. Laws that attempt ban all guns and “universal” background checks that include private sales between individuals are totally unenforceable and encourage non-reporting of lost or stolen guns. Any laws that enable registration of ownership or transfer of guns are only a first step in confiscation of them as boldly stated by the Brady gun grabbers.

      • dan from philly

        It is not “common sense” when you do the responsible thing and tell cops your gun was stolen and you are then blacklisted from keeping your concealed carry permit and possibly restricted from purchasing firearms in the future. The NRA protects my rights from being taken from me by legislators because a clever criminal broke into my locked house, cracked my locked safe (NO safe is impenetrable) and took my legally owned firearm. If these laws were not abused by legislators the NRA wouldnt give a crap, they are only looking out for Law Abiding citizens who get screwed by these laws.
        Common sense would be reporting a gun stolen, cops find it, arresst the criminal, give you your gun back and you say “rad thanks for giving us the info it was stolen”, with out any punishment for what the criminal did.

      • attarleton

        A law-abiding gun owner named “Alan” keeps his firearms locked in a metal cabinet. Alan goes on vacation, and, while he’s gone, thieves break in, crack his gun cabinet, and steal his guns. Alan doesn’t use his guns often, and his cabinet’s in the back of a closet behind some old coats, so when he returns, he doesn’t notice that his guns are gone. When someone commits a horrible crime with one of those guns two days later, the prosecutor charges Alan with violating the hypothetical stolen gun reporting law, the safe storage law, and perhaps one or two others. Alan is going to have a hard time proving he didn’t know that his guns were stolen, and in any event he can’t afford to spend weeks or months of his life fighting the charges — so he pleads guilty to a felony in exchange for a suspended sentence. As a convicted felon, Alan is no longer permitted to own firearms.

        You might say that my example is contrived, and of course it is. But is it impossible? Do people always notice things they should notice? Do prosecutors always know (or care) who made an honest mistake and who knowingly committed a crime? And in an analogous situation regarding any of our other rights, wouldn’t we expect, and want, the organization dedicated to protecting those rights to concern itself with what might happen in the extreme cases?

        • engjin

          Victimless crimes detract value, eating up time and resources better spent actually addressing root causes such as the economic reasons people commit crimes with firearms.

          Additionally these types of crimes also widens gaps in prosecutorial discretion where social status and/or political party will play a larger part in deciding who has, or has not committed a crime. We cannot live in a country with different legal systems, there can only be one America.

  • matthew brandley

    Has anyone ever stopped to think its the black trash that does the killing in every major democrap run city in america?Or the fact that they will get the guns illegaly? Or the fact they are to stupid to even put the guns out of reach of children just like what happend over the weekend? Facts are facts people and they do not lie.

    • rc farmer

      Matthew, some grammar lessons might help make your point…then again, I think you made it just fine.

  • BJMckay

    If violent cities developed infiltration teams to toss the homes of Parolees of Violent crimes and drug sales there would be less gun crimes on the street, because these individuals would wind up back in the system and the illegal firearms would be confiscated. Note here that I am talking about Parolees, those who have already given up their 4th ammendment rights.

  • Ash Wilson

    I may have been in that same jr. high hunter’s safety course with you Mr. Mathis. In addition to the hunters safety courses offered for the purpose of hunting licenses around here (Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc), there is also a cultural awareness of gun safety that begins at an early age. I am not a hunter nor do I own a firearm for self protection. However, I did grow up around them and my sons (currently ages 8 & 11) have had a bb gun for several years. The first things we talked about were how to carry the gun safely, the safety always stays on until the barrel is aimed toward the intended target, check what’s behind the target, never aim at a person even when not loaded and safety on, etc. They know, because we have told them. If they ever find a gun that is not theirs, they are not to touch it and are to tell a trusted adult immediately. These are things we feel are common sense, yet we are very intentional to talk to our children about them. My kids are also taught these things in school by safety resource officers (local policemen assigned to the school for this purpose). My hunch is that some of the “natural” awareness we have and that is instilled around here is not nearly as common in cities.

  • Jim Dean

    Other than blasting the NRA, instead of enlisting their help, you’ve hit the bulls eye. I grew up in Wyoming. Everyone I knew had a gun. No one ever shot anyone. Never. Not Even Once. Why? We knew better.

    • JeffersonSpinningInGrave

      Yep. Five generations (that I know of) in my family have grown up learning proper handling, safety, and storage, without one mishap. The same is true with all our family friends growing up. You teach kids not to stick a fork in the light socket, not to touch the stove, not to run up on strange dogs, to look both ways when crossing the street, and, when they are old enough, about drugs, alcohol, and sex. Part of the job description for parents.

  • Rebecca Taylor

    The NRA is the biggest proponent of firearm safety and education in the world. Eddie Eagle is a program that teaches elementary school age kids what to do of they find a gun. Why not start there.
    If you see a gun:
    Don’t Touch.
    Leave the Area.
    Tell an Adult.

  • Bigred2989

    I think states and cities should reexamine their safe storage laws. If someone buys a gun for home defense, in many places the states expects that person to put a gun lock on it when it’s not being used, but that defeats the whole purpose of having the gun for home defense. They do make safes that are quick to access, but since it’s usually not implied that this is the way to go or because of the extra $100-200 expense most simply opt for an out of reach spot in the home. Obviously this doesn’t work all the time as the first paragraph shows. Attorney General Eric Holder is currently trying to obtain funds to investigate gun safety, but from his speeches it seems he thinks making the guns themselves more difficult to discharge by an unwanted person is the way to go, in a way that is and was so controversial back in the late 90’s that a major manufacturer of firearms, Colt, almost went bankrupt when customers boycotted their goods and flooded the used market with used guns from them. Instead of making “smart guns” how about replacing the lock and chain that many gun purchases come with with a small safe to had the gun in the nightstand? I’m sure all those millions of dollars Holder wants could buy a ton of them.

  • dan from philly

    This is common sense gun safety, in fact this is the only thing that can ever be called “common sense gun safety”. It’s common sense to fill children with knowledge about how to be safe. The NRA would back this up in a heartbeat. They already teach Eddie Eagle (don’t touch, get away, tell an adult) to young children, this would be the next step to teenagers who are too curious to just stop get away and tell an adult. We know teenagers are going to try to touch a gun/ have sex/ drink alcohol, Why not teach them about gun safety/ safe sex/ drunk driving. If you have teens and are not teaching them those 3 things you are doing them a disservice.

  • JeffersonSpinningInGrave

    Finally, the voice of reason. I don’t hear it often in Philadelphia. Teaching children gun safety (i.e., how to safely handle firearms, not a euphemism for gun control) will do more to prevent mishaps than anything else. Of course, very young children (like most 2 year olds) are just too young to have proper judgement, but children who learn proper firearm safety will grow up to be adults who are less likely to leave guns where kids can access them.

    We can never eliminate negligence entirely. The thousand of childhood deaths from drowning, ingesting toxic chemicals, falling, and other household accidents (all of which are far more common than firearm related injuries) show that accidents will always happen. But education is certain to help.

  • Jeff_Odegard

    Excellent points, but you need to start much earlier. As soon as a child can talk and memorize a simple phrase, they need to learn “Stop, don’t touch, go tell a grownup,” and the difference between a real gun and a toy. By 5th or 6th grade, a child should learn basic gun safety and how to safely handle and unload a gun.
    It doesn’t matter where you stand on gun control – guns are a part of our world and at some point, your children will come across them, in your home or someone elses. Just like a hammer, knife, saw or hatchet, your children need to know at least the basics about how to be safe if they see a gun.
    Accidental gun deaths for young children are rare, but they could become even more so if we would just teach our children some basic safety rules.

  • Davis Thompson

    While I agree with the author that gun safety education could save lives (such as the NRA’s Eddie Eagle program) I must take offense to this paragraph:

    “Every time this city tries to ensure that criminals can’t get their hands on a weapon of personal destruction, the NRA and its minions in Harrsburg pass some new law rendering the city’s action illegal.”

    This presupposes that there is some magical law that will “ensure that criminals can’t get their hands” on firearms. In the entire history of gun control, no such law has ever existed. Criminals still get guns no matter how strict the laws are. See New York City and Chicago for evidence. What the author is doing here is creating a fallacy: claiming that there are laws which would completely disarm criminals and make the city a peaceful utopia, only these laws can’t be passed because of the NRA. This is patently false.

    The NRA works to protect the rights of legal gun owners. The NRA supports (and in fact was an architect of) the current NICS background check system. The NRA supports programs similar to “Operation Exile” in which criminals who use a gun in a crime face stiff, mandatory sentences. Oddly enough, the “Exile” type of program is usually opposed by big-city liberal politicians.

    I suppose the author needed to get some NRA bashing in to earn the trust of his readership, but a little logical thought and scholarship would be appreciated.

  • Dinkum_Thinkum

    The TV shows the nation loves are about drug cookers, biker gangs, and general criminality, and these glorify the use of a gun as leverage, intimidation, and power. Then turn on the news and see anecdotes of the same in the real population to reinforce that idea, (if it wasn’t intriguing to people it wouldn’t be news). Pop in your earbuds and listen to some music glorifying gang culture, posturing, intimidating, and earning respect, money, and success for doing so. These industries share of the economy make the gun industry look like noise.

    I’m not making an argument that these things cause violence. These topics were always ones of intrigue, going back to Dragnet on the radio in the 30s and beyond. The fact that these things are popular tell you something about people though.

    Anti-gun people argue that that the Eddie Eagle program, or hunter’s safety, general gun safety, or the existence of shooting sports shouldn’t be publicly discussed because it will recruit people into the “gun culture” (Eddie eagle has been fallaciously described as “Joe Camel” for guns by the VPC).

    The problem with this view is there are actually two gun cultures, a positive one and a negative one, and people innately seem to LOVE the negative one and it is in your face everywhere making advertisers and musicians and news stations a ton of money. The gun culture that is disallowed is the safe, respectful, defensive, and sporting one. This is the one that advertisers and musicians and news stations feel is a threat, and attack on a regular basis. As a participant in positive gun culture, when I see this garbage on TV I turn it off because it is offensive and insulting to me. So maybe more people aware of positive gun culture is a threat, to somebody’s bottom line.

  • Ian

    I have been making this same argument for decades. We already place our children’s education on drugs (which we want our kids to 100% abstain from) in the hands of our public schools with programs like D.A.R.E. Sexual education has been heavily relegated to a public school education (even though we want our kids to 100% abstain from it). If education is the answer to keeping kids away from dangerous things we want them to stay away from, wouldn’t firearms safety be a no brainer to be included?
    That said, you need to start younger than middle school. By middle school most kids are already starting to believe they know more than any adult. Best to start before the big hormone rush.

  • JCM

    Drowning kills more kids that accidental gun shots.

    As a society we consider teaching kids to swim if they have a back yard pool, or the neighbor has a pool, or we take them to the YMCA we consider it the resposible thing to do.

    Yet to propose to teach kids to handle firearms responsibly is some how considered “crazy”.

  • Biff Sarin

    Well Joel, you could have skipped the Juvenile name calling section (NRA and its minions), but overall, a fairly well written article.

    I liken your argument to that of teaching your child to swim. Even if you live in the landlocked mid-western states, I believe that everyone should teach their children to swim. I actually believe you should begin swimming lessons around the time they learn to walk. Again, they may never swim in a lake or a swimming pool or the ocean, but IF they are at a friend’s house and fall into their pool, then you can at least be assured they have the necessary skills to keep themselves safe.