Images from Belgian photographer An-Sofie Kesteleyn’s project, My Little Rifle, about American children and their guns.
Lax gun-control laws and open-carry fanaticism have made firearms more accessible and desirable to our kids than ever. How many deaths will it take for parents to pay attention?
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Over Christmas vacation in 2011, Ashlyn Melton hosted one of her son Noah’s best friends for a sleepover. Noah was 13, in the eighth grade, the kind of kid who got into trouble sometimes at school because he was so friendly—“a social butterfly,” his mother says, a kid who “just adored everyone.” She got on her husband that night for leaving Noah and his friend alone in a room where they’d been playing darts. “You can’t leave those boys in there with darts!” she told him.
Later in the holiday break, Noah went to sleep over at the friend’s house. Sometime after midnight, he and his friend were chatting online with some girls they knew. “I’m assuming that the friend was showing off in front of the girls,” Ashlyn says. He picked up one of the four guns “just laying on the floor of his room,” she goes on, “leaned it against my son’s cheek, expecting to hear it click, were his words. But it killed my child instantly.”
A phone call awakened Ashlyn and her husband around 1:30 a.m. “We drive down the road and there’s caution tape everywhere,” she says. It was then she learned what happened. “I sent my child there and expected him back in the same condition. He was invited to this child’s house and he never came home.” Ashlyn calls what happened to Noah “a freak, irresponsible, senseless, did-not-have-to-happen accident.”
Ann Nichols Bloye’s son Tyler was 13 when he shot himself at school in 2013, using a gun he had taken from his father’s bedside table. Like Noah, Tyler was a sweet boy, “one of those kids who was always really concerned about everyone else,” his mother says. He was a good student, a smart boy who loved the History Channel and “could remember everything, spout off statistics about things nobody else would ever remember,” his mother says. “I have three kids, and out of the three he was my angel. He never got into trouble. I don’t even remember having to reprimand him or ground him or anything.”
He hadn’t been depressed, Ann says, although he had been upset about some of the social dynamics going on at school. But the availability of a loaded, unsecured handgun provided “an easy way out,” she thinks. “It was something he was familiar with. He’d gone to the shooting range with his dad; it was just something that was easy and readily available. I just can’t see him doing it with someone else. But I guess we’ll never know.”
In the aftermath of their sons’ deaths, both women have struggled with the lack of legal closure. It feels as if nobody has been held responsible for the families’ enormous losses. “I don’t want to see him prosecuted,” says Ann of her ex-husband, whose loaded Glock was so easy for Tyler to take, “but at first I did want there to be repercussions. I just wish that he had used better judgment.” The friend who shot Noah was given probation, Ashlyn says, “but you can’t bring up charges in Louisiana against a parent. This is negligence. This is not only on him but on them.” She later found out that four loaded guns were “just laying on the floor” of the room where her son died.
The statistics on shooting deaths of young people in this country are notoriously difficult to obtain, in part because of lobbying efforts by the NRA and others to prevent government agencies such as the CDC from compiling it. “What we do know,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group, “is that the majority of these shootings are avoidable.” According to Everytown for Gun Safety, another advocacy group, around 100 children a year die in unintended shootings each year. In addition, easy access to loaded, unsecured guns is often the determining factor in suicides and school shootings. Not surprisingly, the NRA disputes these numbers, often claiming that more children die in car accidents and drowning (which is true, but nobody is actively preventing the government from tracking those deaths or actively seeking to quash discussion of their prevention, as in the case with firearms).
“What this comes down to is laws,” says Watts, who became a gun-safety advocate after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. At the moment, only 28 states and D.C. have laws on the books that would hold adults legally liable when children gain access to their unsecured guns. Yet, she says, most gun owners actually support this type of legislation: “77 percent of gun owners agree that parents should be required to keep their guns locked and unloaded.”
It’s not anti-gun, in other words, to be pro-safety.
Neither Ann nor Ashlyn describes herself as anti-gun. “We don’t have any handguns,” says Ashlyn, “but we do have guns, and they are locked up. My child got his first gun at three years old, and he knew everything about guns: knew not to point them at anyone, knew to keep them unloaded.” Ann knew her ex-husband kept a gun, “but I assumed that it was kept locked up or secured.” She goes on, “I’m not a gun owner, but I’m not opposed to it, not at all. I just feel like people need to use common sense.”
Common sense was once a hallmark of the National Rifle Association’s approach to gun safety, believe it or not. The older version of the NRA supported background checks and was a leader in firearm safety instruction for kids (I still have my NRA riflery medals from summer camp!). But the organization, founded to represent gun owners when most Americans owned guns primarily for hunting and sport shooting, has morphed into a lobbying wing for the powerful gun manufacturers. While NRA head Wayne LaPierre railed against guns in schools after the 1999 Columbine school shooting, his response to Sandy Hook was a rabid defense of guns everywhere, including in the hands of teachers. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” he yelled, “is a good guy with a gun!”
That’s crazy enough. But if you look deeper you see an even more demented mind-set—rantings about “a national nightmare of violence and victimization”—a paranoid worldview that sees bad guys everywhere, and perceives guns as the only guarantee against chaos. This isn’t an accident, Shannon Watts points out. “If you look at the propaganda of the gun lobby, it’s basically telling Americans that you should be terrified at all times, that you’re always in danger—because it profits them for everyone, anywhere, anytime, to have a gun. It’s constant fear-mongering.”
This potent blend of fear and desire—because the gun manufacturers’ other emotional hook is that guns are beautiful, sexy, and affirming—has spawned a society in which adults’ relationship with guns is almost magical. The NRA used to represent people who used their rifles to hunt; now it kowtows to fetishists and wannabe soldiers, the kind of people who would take a 9-year-old to a gun range to shoot an Uzi. Is it any wonder that our kids find them so tempting?
“We’re seeing these unintentional gun deaths over and over,” Watts says. “There’s a Harvard study that showed that 70 percent of kids under 10 know where their parents store their guns, even if their parents think they’re hidden.”
Maybe it’s time for us to see guns as a parenting issue. After all, we spend hours researching video monitors and safety gates. Car seat installation and usage has become a veritable moral battleground. “It’s a good thing for parents who have been affected by unsecured guns to tell their story,” Ann Nichols Bloye says. “Maybe it’ll make parents think.”
Ashlyn Melton says it gives her strength “to keep telling Noah’s story.” She doesn’t want it to happen to anyone else’s kid, and yet she knows how easily it could. There should be laws in place, she says, to hold the adults accountable. “As a responsible parent, we shouldn’t do any less, we shouldn’t expect any less. They’re children, they’re in our care.”
“I think there’s an emotional pull and credibility and clarity to the cry of a mother,” Watts says. “The gun lobby has made a very vocal minority of Americans afraid that their guns are being taken away, which is not the case. But now a majority of mothers are afraid they’re going to lose their children.”
Here again is the link to Everytown’s resource page for both personal gun safety tips and legislative action toward child access protection laws. It’s time.
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