“A 6-year-old boy is in critical condition after accidentally shooting himself in the face, Mason County Sheriff’s deputies said.” And so begins yet another tale of a negligent discharge resulting in a serious injury to a child wherein the media—in this case seattlepi.com—dances around the subject of responsibility. “The boy apparently found the key to a locked gun safe, unlocked the safe and pulled out a pistol, said sheriff’s spokesman Dean Byrd. An 8-year-old on the home [sic] told investigators the boy was looking down the barrel when the gun went off. Byrd says the boy suffered life-threatening injuries and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.” Ah, the old “when the gun went off” instead of “he shot himself.” See? Guns do kill people! Children! But there are more important issues here . . .
Let’s start with a counter-intuitive conclusion: a gun safe can increase the risk of a negligent discharge.
For a child, a locked safe is shrouded in mystery. Children love mysteries. (Why else would they want to watch those meddling kids?) Exploring forbidden zones to examine contraband is a normal, natural part of the developmental process; they want to test the limits of parental control, explore their own fears and get stuff.
What IS this thing that’s so “bad” that I can’t even touch it? Why can’t I touch it? They say it’s bad, but they also say that too much chocolate ice cream is bad. It isn’t! I know where Daddy keeps the key . . .
Of course you should keep your gun locked in a safe. There are only two places for a handgun: on your hip or in a safe. Long gun? In your hands or in your safe. Period. But locking a gun in a safe is no substitute for teaching your children proper gun safety, from the moment they can talk.
Children need to know two of the basic gun safety rules: never put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot and never point a gun at someone. If this six-year-old had followed either of these two rules—if the eight-year-old bystander had known and enforced them—the child who shot himself in the face wouldn’t be fighting for his life, with the prospect of lifelong disfigurement.
Even if the gun owner hadn’t left the safe key where the boy could find it, the parents’ failure to teach gun safety may still have led to tragedy. If the boy was ill-informed enough to point a gun at his own face and pull the trigger after defeating his parent’s security arrangements, he would have been fully capable of doing the same thing when discovering a gun a someone else’s house—without having to defeat a safe.
Gun owners are responsible for teaching their children basic firearms safety. They’re responsible for making sure that their children understand the rules. They’re responsible for enforcing and reinforcing the rules. They’re responsible for keeping their guns away from their children. And they’re responsible for maintaining vigilance.
A gun safe is part of the firearms safety process. To give it any more importance is to risk complacency. Complacency kills. When it comes to firearms safety, out of sight should never mean out of mind.