The shooting death of a 2-year-old girl in Kentucky at the hands of her 5-year-old brother has opened up yet another debate about gun control.
While no one favors the idea of 5-year-olds using weapons without supervision, there is no consensus on the appropriate age to start hands-on training with firearms.
"Many people who have firearms familiarize their kids with firearms early on, because they want them to know that this is not something to be trifled with," says Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, a gun rights advocacy group.
But while some hunters and other gun owners want to instill in their kids a sense of heritage and a healthy respect for safety, public health advocates believe there's little benefit in allowing any children to handle guns.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states bluntly in a policy statement that the best way to prevent firearm injury is to keep guns out of children's homes and communities.
"In terms of safety, why would you want these kids around incredibly dangerous products?" says David Hemenway, director of Harvard University's Injury Control Research Center. "It's hard to imagine how this increases safety at all — let's play with a dangerous product."
To keep children safe, Americans need to treat guns with the same care that they use when it comes to cars and swimming pools, says Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group. But that won't necessarily be the result of any new laws or regulations.
"Decisions around guns should be looked at as an issue of parental responsibility," Gross says. "We think it's up to parents to make sure they're fully educated about the risks of guns around the home."
Not Common But Dangerous
The number of children unintentionally killed by firearms is relatively small — an average of about 125 per year, according to the Brady Campaign.
Of course, the total number of shootings is much higher. More than 3,000 children are treated for accidental shootings in emergency rooms each year.
Shootings are likely to inflict greater harm than other types of injuries. Half of the youths treated for gun injuries at two Colorado trauma centers required intensive care, compared with less than a fifth of those with other types of injuries, according to a study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Thirteen percent of those gun victims died, compared with fewer than 2 percent of the children injured in other ways.
Hemenway says it's much more difficult to find reliable data on the number of children who shoot other people, as opposed to how many children are shot. But his own research has shown that when children are shot accidentally, it's usually someone around their own age holding the weapon — or, often, older brothers.
Training To Avoid Accidents
Anyone who has been around children (especially boys) knows they are likely to pretend almost any object is a gun and will pretend to shoot people with it.
Small children and real firearms, therefore, are accidents waiting to happen.
Last month, a man in the Cincinnati area was arrested after his 3-year-old son shot himself in the arm while reaching for a loaded gun that was hidden under a bed.
Next week, Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts intends to introduce a bill that would require gun makers to "personalize" weapons so that they will fire only for their owners. Such technology exists, but as with other gun restrictions, his legislation faces an uncertain future.
Keep weapons locked and unloaded, and keep ammunition secured elsewhere. Never point a gun at anyone else.
"There are still far too many parents in our country who think that just hiding the gun is enough," says Gross, the Brady Campaign president. "Parents think that children don't know where guns are hidden, or that their kids know better."
Gun clubs and groups such as the Boy Scouts and 4-H routinely offer firearms safety instruction to children. "Sometimes, the younger kids seem to pay attention better than the older kids," says Robert L. Weiman, who trains about 130 kids a year as a volunteer safety instructor at the Monticello Rod & Gun Club in Minnesota.
Minnesota, like a number of other states in recent years, has lowered the minimum age at which children can receive hunting licenses to 10.
Weiman says it makes no sense to him that 10-year-olds can hunt with adult supervision but aren't allowed to take his safety course until they reach their 11th birthdays.
"I know a lot of 10-year-olds personally who could go through that course with no problem at all," he says. "Ten-year-olds are as capable of understanding what we're teaching them just as well as a 12-year-old."
Marketing To Children
If states can't quite settle on the exact age at which they believe children can responsibly handle firearms, what has disturbed a number of people about Tuesday's shooting in Kentucky is the fact that Kristian Sparks, the 5-year-old who shot his younger sister Caroline, used a rifle known as a Crickett that had been given to him as a gift.
Keystone Sporting Arms, which manufactured the weapon, markets it as "my first rifle," offered in a range of colors and held in promotional materials by a cartoon cricket. Its website features a "kids corner" filled with pictures of young children holding weapons.
Those appear to have been taken down, and the company has refused to comment to reporters.
In 2011, Keystone gave away 1,000 youth .22-caliber rifles to gun dealers and ranges that hosted First Shots introductory events sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
"Keystone Sporting Arms believes in firearms safety and getting youth started with the right equipment to ensure the best experience," Bill McNeal, who co-founded the company with his son in 1996, said at the time.