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.