Schoolyard cowboys

Education alone is not enough to stop kids from playing with guns. So what is?

Published June 2, 1999 6:00PM (EDT)

America's children are fascinated with guns. They are emblems of our culture and almost as easy to come by as a driver's license. From images of cowboys galloping across the Wild West, rifles slung across their backs, to Woody Harrelson letting loose with a semiautomatic in "Natural Born Killers," guns are symbols of freedom, independence and power.

The recent school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Conyers, Ga., have highlighted the potential for children to commit violent acts. Since February 1996, there have been seven such highly publicized shootings across the country. The perpetrators were all described as depressed, white males between the ages of 11 and 18. In the aftermath, we wonder about their lives, their psychological makeup and how they were raised.

But what about younger children who might not exhibit any "telltale" signs of aggression? Would a preschooler pick up a gun and shoot another child or himself? According to Marjorie Hardy, assistant professor of psychology at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., the answer is yes -- especially if your child is a boy.

In 1995 and 1996, she and her students conducted studies in Charlotte, N.C., to determine how best to prevent young children from playing with guns. By educating the children, all between the ages of 4 and 7, they expected to cause them to steer clear of guns. Instead, when left together in a room with a real, unloaded gun, as well as toys and other familiar items, 65 percent of the 130 children in the studies played with the weapon. Only 35 percent went to find an adult when they saw the gun, and they were mostly girls. In May 1999, three years later, Hardy's study was re-created at her son's day-care facility by ABC's "20/20." The results were the same.

Why did these children play with guns? Perhaps it was simply because they were told not to. Critics of Hardy's studies have pointed out that the children were tempted to play with guns because it was a safe setting -- their day care. But many children commit crimes each year using guns found in their own homes -- another supposedly safe place.

Hardy has concluded that education alone is not enough to deter kids from playing with guns. She suggests that parents monitor their children more closely and set parameters for their behavior. But even that may not be sufficient: When Hardy's own 4-year-old son was faced with the chance to play with a gun, he did. Afterwards, he lied about it. Salon Mothers Who Think spoke to Hardy by phone to find out more about her studies and why she thinks kids play with guns.

What was the purpose of the studies you and your students conducted in 1995 and 1996?

We set out to try to decrease children's fascination and playing with guns. In the first study, we had 60 kids. Half the kids listened to a policeman talk about the dangers of guns and the other half didn't. Then we put them together to see if the ones who'd heard about the danger of guns could persuade the ones that hadn't heard not to play with the guns. What we found was that it didn't work. Just hearing a policeman talk about the dangers of guns wasn't sufficient.

In the second study [of 70 different children] we thought maybe they needed more education. We spent five days educating them about how to make good choices, how to be assertive without being aggressive, how to resist peer pressure. There was a lot of positive feedback when they role-played these situations. Then we videotaped them again, and again we found that it didn't make a difference.

The bottom line from the educational standpoint is that education alone is not sufficient to deter children from playing with guns.

When kids are told not to do something, they have a tendency to want to go and do it.

I'm sure that's part of it, and that's why we do things like lock up liquor and lock up medicine. But we have parents who don't lock up guns. There's definitely the novelty part of it, especially when you're forbidden to do something. So there are some parents who argue that if they take their kids to a shooting range and they let them see the power of a gun, their kids will have a respect for the gun and won't be so curious anymore because they've already fired it and it's not that big a deal. Does that work? I don't know. It's difficult to test.

What did the kids do with the guns? Did they just look at them? Point and shoot?

They shot at other kids, shot themselves, shot up the room. The kids who played with the guns became more aggressive overall, verbally and physically. They called each other names, kicked the toys.

At about what age do kids realize the difference between a real and a toy gun?

As part of the studies we asked the kids to identify the guns as real or pretend and we found that almost all of the 4-year-olds thought the guns were toys. About half the 5-year-olds thought the real guns were toys and by the time they were 6 or 7, they could tell the difference. That didn't stop them from playing with them, though.

How realistic are the results of the study, considering that children usually don't just find guns lying around?

What prompted the first study was that the children in that day care had found a gun a few weeks previously that was lying on the ground outside their day care for some reason. They had picked it up before they told the teacher about it. We want kids not even to touch the gun because it could go off. Most of the time kids aren't going to find them lying around. They're more likely going to find them in a bedside drawer, at the top of a closet.

But it's difficult to test this. What I was more interested in finding out was, if they did find one just sitting there, would they touch it? They had just been told that, even in a setting that is safe, even if you're at home or in day care, if you find a gun, you need to not touch it. You need to go get an adult. In that essence, it was a little unrealistic. Some people criticize the study, saying it's not fair to leave them lying around in an area where they feel safe, where they are allowed to explore the other toys and items. But most parents don't tell their kids that they can't go into their dresser drawers or a particular area of the house. I have a 4-year-old and he's never gone into my dresser drawers as far as I know, but I've never told him he can't and they're not locked up.

Based on the results of your studies, what would you suggest is the best way for parents to keep their children safe from guns?

I don't think you can teach really young kids safety just because they can't really distinguish between fantasy and reality. They don't have a concept of death as being a permanent thing. Really what parents need to do is monitor their kids and keep their guns locked away.

You do need to continually educate your child and hope that somewhere, somehow it seeps in. We did have some kids who did leave the room and tell an adult there were guns there. Thirty-five percent didn't play with them, or got an adult. They were usually the girls.

In the first study, though, in 1995, there was no difference -- about an equal number of boys and girls played with the gun. In the second study it was mostly boys. Generally, I would say yes, boys are more likely to pick up and play with a gun. I think that lack of finding in the first study is probably unusual, but that doesn't mean that girls won't play with guns.

Were you surprised that your own son played with a gun when given the chance?

Yes and no. I think for some reason the part that really took me aback was seeing the other kids shoot him. I think what surprised me was not so much that he played with the gun, but how he really got into it. He was saying things like "Kill this, kill that, shoot," just like any other boy.

Why do you think boys have such a fascination with guns?

I think it's their role models -- look at the role models on television. They're taught from a very early age to act out rather than express their feelings, or cry or talk about them.

We don't encourage boys to express themselves any other way than physically. I do believe some of it is testosterone. My son couldn't be raised in a less violent atmosphere than our home, I don't think. We don't watch violent television, we don't allow him to watch violent television, he doesn't have any action figures. The child doesn't really even know who Batman is. And yet, we've been called into school because he's hurt his friends.

What are parents and adults up against when they try to teach kids not to play with guns?

It's definitely a "Do as I say, not as I do" type situation. There need to be distinctions between parents and children. We tell kids not to drink and then we drink -- and that's OK. We need to say, "You don't drink until you're a grown-up." Kids need to realize that there are some things that grown-ups can do that kids can't and grown-ups need to realize that kids are going to imitate their actions more than they're going to heed their words.

We have some choices to make as parents. Do we want to set a good example by our behavior? Or do we want to assume that the kids should know the difference?

I get a lot [of flak] from NRA people and gun rights advocates saying it's not fair to say people shouldn't own guns. That's not what I'm saying. My dad owns a gun -- some people have to own guns because that's what they do for a living. That's what my dad did, he was a police officer.

What I am saying is that if you're going to own a gun and you have small kids or you're going to have small kids in your house, you have a responsibility to make sure that that gun is safe.

Older children -- say, older than 10 -- have a better understanding of the dangers of guns. So why is it that they still seek them out, carry them and use them?

Children have a sense of invulnerability, through adolescence and even in their 20s. Kids know if they drink and drive they could die, but they still do it. There's a sense of "Maybe it's dangerous but nothing will happen to me."

Why do you think we're seeing this rash of gun threats and shootings?

After Columbine, it's certainly copycat. I'm just grateful that summer's here, although I worry about the media bringing a lot of attention to the situation when schools go back in session next fall. There are going to be articles saying, "Are schools safer now?" and "Should your child go back to school?" And it's just going to open a can of worms again.

I wonder if we're going to see an increase in home schooling. It's going to be a pretty sad day when we're afraid to even let our children leave the home to go to school.

By Lisa Moskowitz

Lisa Moskowitz writes and lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Adweek, PC World Online, and American Kite magazine.

MORE FROM Lisa Moskowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------