The measure, which was approved Tuesday by Iowa’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives, would permit children under age 14 to use “a pistol, revolver or the ammunition” with parental supervision. The bill is now headed to the state Senate for a vote. If passed, the legislation would distinguish Iowa as the only state in the nation to allow young children, toddlers and, technically, infants to fire handguns, expanding on a current law that already permits children to fire shotguns and rifles under parental supervision.
“The bill before us allows for 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds to operate handguns,” said Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, a Democrat who voted against the bill.
“We do not need a militia of toddlers,” Running-Marquardt said.
Republican lawmakers, including the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jake Highfill, said the legislation was a “parents’ rights” issue, arguing that parents should be able to make decisions for their children without laws getting in the way. Highfill said the “only alternative” to allowing children under age 14 to use handguns is “turning 18 with no experience.”
The more rational-minded among us might notice a few problems in this line of thinking. As Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer put it: “Logically, this bill is completely ridiculous.”
For one thing, parents can’t always be trusted to make the best decisions for their children, which is why we have laws mandating the use of safety features like car seats and seat belts. The fact that one in eight U.S. children will suffer from abuse or maltreatment by the time they turn 18 quite clearly exemplifies the need for such laws.
“While most parents would not allow their 2-year-old to wield a revolver, we pass laws for those parents who lack the parenting skills needed to protect their own children,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Mascher, who also voted against the bill.
Indeed, parents seem to display particularly bad judgment when it comes to firearms and children. In the U.S., one in three households with children has a gun in the home; of these households, 45% have at least one unlocked, loaded firearm. Research shows that unsafe gun storage in the home is a leading risk factor for child gun deaths and injuries, contributing significantly to the 10,000 firearm-related injuries and 3,000 firearm-related deaths that occur among youth in the U.S. each year. Yet, a staggering 40 percent of parents with guns in their homes are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the related dangers to their kids.
These dangers include death and injury, not just from unintentional shootings, but from suicide and homicide, as well. In addition, the chronic exposure to lead that young shooters experience — either when firing a weapon or making their own ammunition, a practice commonly known as “hand loading” — can harm many different body organs and systems, including the brain, leading to reduced intelligence as well as behavioral problems. While most gun-owning parents in the U.S. are unaware of the lead-related dangers associated with firearm use among children, the problem is actually quite significant. In 2013, scientists from around the nation published a consensus statement warning: “Lead-based ammunition is likely the greatest, largely unregulated source of lead knowingly discharged into the environment in the United States.”
At a Vancouver, Washington shooting range in 2010, blood tests found 20 out of 32 youth on the junior Rifle and Pistol Club team had been overexposed to lead. “We weren’t very cautious,” one of the members was quoted as saying. “We would get lead on our hands and eat finger food.” Tests showed that the floor of the range had a lead level 993 times that allowed by a federal housing guideline. Junior team coach and longtime club member Marc Ueltschi admitted: “No one knew anything about lead poisoning.”
In 2014, a nearly-identical scenario played out in Boston, at the Hopedale Pistol and Rifle Club. The same year, officials in Helena, Mont., shut down one of the state’s largest middle schools for about a week after discovering dangerous levels of lead contamination in the building from a sealed-off, basement gun range that had operated decades earlier. These stories are just a few in a long line of similar events. In fact, in Alaska, where gun culture is particularly strong, firing ranges remain the leading source of lead exposure in children aged 6 to 17, according to state data.
Even more troubling is that research shows a clear connection between early exposure to guns and increased aggression in childhood and adolescence. In a study assessing children’s play and aggressive behavior with firearms, researchers found that “access to a parent’s firearm was correlated with gun play” and that in turn, “gun play and handling of firearms in the home were correlated with aggressive behavior.” Research also shows that, among adolescents and teenagers, casual handling of guns and the belief that carrying a gun is a good idea are both significant predictors of carrying and using guns to threaten and/or injure others. Similar findings have been reported in numerous studies.
Moreover, children’s brains simply aren’t developed enough to handle the responsibility that comes along with using a lethal weapon, and in many instances, they may not be physically capable, either.
Guns In The Home
In light of this empirical reality, coupled with the fact that many gun owners are unaware that children have handled their guns, the safest policy is not having a gun, particularly a handgun, in the home. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advocates this approach to safety. They also note that, although proper firearm storage can’t mitigate the entire risk of having a gun in the home, research shows that keeping a gun locked and unloaded reduces the risk of unintentional firearm deaths and firearm suicides among youth by more than 70%. Meanwhile, evidence from multiple national randomized controlled trials demonstrates that brief physician counseling directed at parents, combined with distribution of gunlocks, may be effective in promoting safer storage of guns in homes with children.
In contrast, pro-gun lawmakers and lobbying groups claim that programs like the National Rifle Association’s “Eddie Eagle Safety Program” work and are sufficient to protect children from the risks of guns, despite significant evidence to the contrary. In fact, not only are these programs ineffective, but they may actually make children more likely to pick up and handle guns when they find them.
On top of that, research suggests that participation in such industry-sponsored “safety” programs may actually instill a false sense of security in parents. According to a 2005 study published in the journal Pediatric Nursing, 85% of gun-owning parents in the analysis did not practice safe gun storage despite reporting they believed it was important, and the most common predictor of such unsafe practices was the misconception that “children will be safe if taught” about guns. In one rural, population-based survey of adults from 1,000 American households, researchers found that gun-owners who had taken an industry-sponsored gun safety course were more than twice as likely to keep a loaded, unlocked gun in the home than those who had no training at all. Studies have also found that even gun-owning parents who grew up with guns in the home as children are no more knowledgeable about gun safety than non-gun owners. Perhaps this is because non-gun owners are less likely to be swayed by industry propaganda that promotes fear and encourages unsafe gun practices to deal with it.
Ignoring the overwhelming evidence that firearms make children less safe, the NRA and their allies in elected office continue to promote bills that forbid pediatricians from even talking to parents about guns and safety measures. They’ve also consistently objected to EPA regulation of lead in ammunition and other approaches to promoting child safety, including smart guns and Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws that impose criminal liability when a minor gains access to a negligently stored firearm.
‘Start Them Young’
If the NRA and lawmakers like Iowa’s Rep. Highfill actually cared about child safety as they claim, they would not consistently oppose laws that have been shown to keep children safer while simultaneously proposing laws to increase children’s access to guns. And that’s how we know what this bill is really about: creating the next generation of gun-owners by targeting children during their most impressionable years.
“This is not about the Second Amendment,” said Rep. Art Staed, a conservative Democrat and Second Amendment supporter who voted against the bill. “This is about putting more guns in the hands of children.”
Last week, the Violence Policy Center released a report that found the firearms industry is advertising to children as young as grade-school age “for financial and political gain.” This includes hosting events like the NRA’s annual “Youth Day” to promote firearms for children, designing and marketing guns specifically for kids, and even using a Joe Camel-like mascot–the Crickett rifle’s “Davey Crickett”–as well as encouraging parents to let their children access guns at the earliest possible age. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for America’s firearms industry, has published a host of advertising and marketing guidelines to target children, including one report with a section cryptically titled “Start Them Young.”
“As household gun ownership has steadily declined and the primary gun market of white males continues to age, the firearms industry has set its sights on America’s children,” the VPC report states. “Much like the tobacco industry’s search for replacement smokers, the gun industry is seeking replacement shooters.”