Is There a “Right” Way to Teach Children About Guns?

For some Americans, feelings about firearms can be complicated. But for mothers, including this writer, fearing their deadly consequences is not.

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Last week I accompanied my daughter to her owl-animated, finger-painted classroom where her burly former first-grade teacher, who is now teaching third grade, greeted us with his trademark kindness. I glanced around the room before the intake conference, absorbing details of the year to come: the red rug for group meetings, the small tables with art supplies, and a real rowboat, fashioned into a quiet reading nook with throw pillows by this teacher, a nature lover, outdoorsman, and expert on animal habitats gleaned first-hand from his life as a hunter.

Neither my husband nor I are gun owners or supporters, but we both remember immediately liking—even trusting—this teacher the first year, even after our daughter came home with the incredulous report that her teacher “hunted animals and ate them.” We dreaded the inevitable moment when we had to explain where meat came from, but we did like that her teacher spoke with honesty, that his wrestler’s physique belied a warm heart, and that, like Cesar Millan’s dogs, children relaxed in his presence.

But we soon learned we were among the minority in the parent community of our small private school. While our daughter had been delighted to turn the classroom into a wild-game habitat that first year, other parents rumbled about this teacher’s openly sharing his hunting adventures and marksman prowess.

At first, I found the other parents’ concerns misplaced: I knew this teacher hailed from Wisconsin, where hunting often went hand in hand with labor-union support and working families. I knew a similar culture first-hand, having had a union-employed grandfather in an upstate New York steel mill, who dreamed of an FDR–style socialist democracy much like Bernie Sanders does now—expanded union rights, Wall Street regulations, and bigger social safety net, and who had hunted every season for sport as well as for food. He was a civic-minded person. This teacher wasn’t a man who hoarded assault weapons, I said to one parent, remembering my grandfather. “What’s the difference, really?” the parent countered.

The difference was vast to me, the rational-minded hunter and the open-carry gun nut sat on opposite sides of the spectrum. But I saw the other parent’s point: A gun is a gun and a kill is a kill, and broaching the topic in school with young children, no matter how safely, marks the end of a certain kind of innocence, permeates a barrier non-gun-using parents like myself prefer to believe exists. The truth is, in our region, that barrier is already pretty permeable. While visiting rural Wisconsin over the summer, a tricked-out flatbed truck sporting a hot pink AK-47 decal on the back windshield idled next to us at a red light, with two American flags flowing in the August breeze. Involuntarily, my hands gripped the steering wheel; being in such close proximity to an assault weapon enthusiast felt unquestionably unsafe.

I couldn’t imagine a similar sight where we lived, north of Chicago, though only miles from a hotbed of gun violence so renown, Spike Lee calls it “Chiraq” in his upcoming film of the same name. Our small community felt like one of those Midwestern havens you read about, but I realized a while ago I would be kidding myself to believe guns could remain a contained and orderly topic of conversation in our home. During her first-grade year, my daughter came home talking about how Dr. Martin Luther King was shot by someone who didn’t want Black people to be free, practically in the same breath that she mentioned how her teacher’s 11-year-old daughter shot a buck “all by herself.” The association was seamless for her, as it was for the disapproving parent.

I quickly made the distinction for my daughter, that shooting animals for food was different than shooting people for hate. If she lived on a farm she would know this, I self-soothed later in bed, unable to sleep. But the truth—that she was learning about guns and their systemic presence in our society from elementary school—made my heart sink.

Until I remembered the summer before, when she learned to pump her legs on a swing, and asked about the image on every playground in the Chicago area, on every school door, every library, every bank, and on the front of most public and many private institutions. The image of the black gun encircled in red with a slash was as common as a No Smoking sign. I struggled to explain the Illinois Concealed Carry law in a way a young child would understand: that secret guns weren’t allowed in parks, schools, festivals, or libraries by law. I told her this with caution, implying what I desperately wanted to believe: that we were safe most of the time.

I did not tell her secret guns were allowed in people’s homes, in people’s cars, or were at one time illegally kept in the apartments not far from where we lived. I didn’t tell her, until recently, that people sometimes were killed in schools and churches because of hate, and because guns were too easy to buy. I caved because of the murders in Charleston this summer, long after some families I know, and probably way in advance of many others.

Like many surprises of parenting, explaining why we have guns at all in our modern society is an education I never expected to provide. The hedging is interesting: which guns are okay in my mind (a grandfather’s hunting rifle), which aren’t (all other guns, especially military weapons); what some people believe is right about guns (protection, sport), what our family believes (we do not use/need guns in our lives). I use neutral language when her school has the Intruder Drill, in which children must hide and remain very still, like the Von Trapps at the end of The Sound of Music. I say things like, We have to be prepared just in case a bad person with a gun comes to the school, not intending to imply that her teacher is a good person with a gun, but of course that’s the message.

I still support stringent gun laws, and applaud WalMart for their decision to stop selling assault weapons. I hope to one day live in a country in which gun deaths are so rare, they are limited to the occasional tragic accident. At the very least, I’d like to live in a city where 1100 gun shootings/murders/injuries aren’t recorded by midyear. But I don’t condemn the third-grade teacher’s judgment to talk about his hunting experiences, not entirely. He is a good educator, a father, and an outdoorsman with a lineage that goes back to the days humans began to eat meat. I was relieved at the intake meeting, however, when he told us he has shifted his storytelling focus, away from hunting and more towards the great outdoors, and the many ecosystems living interdependently with each other. 


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