Thoughts On The Christmas Gun, Ralphie, And Avoidable Tragedy
December 2, 2013
When I started thinking about writing this post I couldn’t get past mental images from the movie, A Christmas Story. You probably know the one. All Ralphie (a juvenile Walter Mitty) wants for Christmas is a BB gun… and not just any BB gun, but the “official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, range model, air rifle!”
His dream, however, seemed to be thwarted at every turn by the admonition, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
I hate that movie.
I just never understood the allure of fiction that seems to hit so close to home. The travails of a middle class, suburban family and the way Christmas always seems to draw such a sharp distinction between the responsibilities and realities of grown-ups and the self-absorbed fantasies of children… well, I can’t see why anyone would think that’s funny. That’s hard, dark stuff, man! Hearts are broken…. dreams shattered… the poignancy of lost innocence and the bitter resentment of adults toward the carefree joy of youngsters… it’s an ugly, ugly thing. It’s not funny. It’s mean.
I think I was about eight years old when I got my Red Ryder, and yes, it was a Christmas gift, hidden behind everything else at the back of the tree. I knew what it was. My parents knew I knew. But I didn’t get to open it until every last thing had been pulled from under the tree… the socks, underwear, and flannel shirts. It probably wasn’t even the New Year before I was hit by my first riccochet (and not my last). I don’t even remember what I shot… only that it was impermeable to BBs and rejected my shot, sending it back at my head, post-haste. Of course, the incident went unremarked in the family history. The tiny red mark faded long before I returned home to the call of the porch light. No one ever knew but me.
Do I digress? Maybe a bit, but I think not.
It’s December now, and that means time to start looking seriously at Christmas gift giving. Firearms are on the top of the list for many a hopeful recipient.
For various reasons, it seems like more and more parents are giving firearms to their youngsters, and the manufacturers are stepping up to provide for this market. There are the traditional, youth offerings from companies like Crickett or H&R, but the “serious” gun makers are also getting deeply involved. There are youth guns from Browning, Weatherby, Remington, and many more. Youth models on the AR platform are also available for young shooters.
I think it’s pretty cool, although I sometimes feel a twinge of jealousy when I see a 10-year old sporting his new deer rifle. I was 12 before I was allowed to have a “real” gun, and that was a shotgun. My dad was extremely safety conscious, and he didn’t believe a kid should be shooting a centerfire rifle (or even a rimfire without direct supervision). I wasn’t even allowed to shoot slugs, except when hunting from an elevated stand, and seated next to my dad or grandfather. My first handful of deer fell to 20-gauge, #3 buckshot.
When I finally got my first deer rifle at 15, it wasn’t a 30-06 or even a .243. It was a Winchester Model 94 Trapper, in .30-30… a short-range, relatively low velocity rifle. Of course, it was perfect for the coastal swamps and bays where I hunted, but all I saw was that it wasn’t the sexy, long-range piece of gunmakers’ art I’d been drooling over in the catalogs.
My dad’s justification was, again, safety related. The coastal plain of North Carolina is about as flat as any place you’ll find in the US. While the swamps and forests can be pretty thick, the truth is that there aren’t many geographic features that will reliably stop an errant bullet. This is significant enough that some counties in NC actually require centerfire rifle hunters to use elevated stands (at least 8′). Despite my solemn oaths to only use my rifle from a tree stand, my dad was savvy enough to know that a 15-year old doesn’t always have the wherewithal to pass up the occasional, unsafe shot (truth is, a lot of “adult” hunters don’t have the restraint). That .30-30 would discourage me from taking long shots, and if I did, the bullet would still be in the dirt within 400 yards.
I chafed at what I saw as overly-restrictive rules, expecially because so many of my friends didn’t seem to be so encumbered. But looking back, of course, I see the wisdom (isn’t that always the way?). I think about some of the things I witnessed or heard about, and it’s honestly a bit of a miracle that none of my friends seriously injured themselves… or anyone else.
I expect most of us think we’re pretty good about it. We consistently observe the rules ourselves, and we demand the same from the people with whom we hunt. I’m pretty certain that I could ask every hunter I meet if they consider themselves safety conscious, and every one would answer with the affirmative. Muzzle control, trigger etiquette, target identification… they all come as second nature to each of us as we spend more time afield and at the range, and become more and more familiar with our firearms.
Familiarity. We know what that breeds. Contempt… usually demonstrated through complacency.
I know it happens. I catch myself doing it, and I have observed it in others… often (but not always) directly proportional to the length of time they’ve been hunting. I think some folks just don’t know any better, some don’t realize, and many others have just begun to relax their diligence since nothing bad has ever happened to them. Personally, I may be a little more diligent (and less tolerant) than some because I have had a couple of very close calls that were only mitigated by my adherence to basic safety precepts.
It’s one thing, and bad enough, when we become complacent about firearm safety ourselves. It’s another altogether when we reflect that complacency to our kids. When we give guns to children, there is no room for lacksadaisical.
Maybe I’m a reflection of my dad, and maybe that’s a good thing or maybe not, but when it comes to kids and guns, I believe in absolutes. There is no try to be safe. You are safe or you are not, and if you are not, then you lose the privilege of using the gun. We can try again later, but until the lesson sinks in, the shooting is over the moment that muzzle covers an unintended target, or the finger goes inside the trigger guard while the gun isn’t pointed downrange. Gun safety, in my opinion, is too serious for “three warnings” or constant leniency. The potential consequences are simply too significant.
But even when we’re sure we’ve drilled safety into their young heads, we can’t stop there. It’s one thing for a kid to know better. It’s another thing altogether for them to consistently follow the rules… especially when no one is there to catch them at it. You may think you have the best-behaved kid in the world, loaded with responsibility and intelligence. But listen to the interviews of parents after some kid shoots his best friend while showing off his new rifle, or when some youngster gets into the closet and finds dad’s pistol and accidentally blows his brains all over the bedroom. Those parents thought their child knew better too.
And here’s the thing. The kid probably did know better. But that didn’t stop him from making a bad judgement call. The reason it didn’t stop him is because he’s a child. Without diving into an extended discussion of childhood development and psychology, suffice it to say that they simply don’t reason like an adult (should). Their perceptions of cause and effect aren’t really consistent, and the concept of irrevocable consequences is largely unformed. The thought of death, or especially of causing death, is abstract… it’s just not real.
An adult may think he has impressed the idea that “this is not a toy” on a kid, but the truth is, to a kid, everything is a toy. The gun, then, is merely a toy with special significance. For some kids, it’s simply impossible to resist that tabu, especially if they can use it to satisfy their own curiousity, or to increase their esteem among peers or siblings.
“Look, this is my gun I got for Christmas. It’s not a toy. It’s very dangerous. Here’s how you put the bullets in.”
Another mother sobbing for her dead baby.
Sorry, this conversation has drifted a long way from a stupid comedy about Ralphie and the ridiculous lamp. But has it?
We all laughed, at least a little, when he bounced that BB off of the sign and cracked his Coke-bottle glasses. It had been so long foretold, it was simply inevitable.
But isn’t that how real tragedy happens? What makes it tragic isn’t always what actually happened, but what could have happened to prevent it.
Look folks, we all know better… even if we don’t always do better. But when it comes to our kids, don’t they deserve more than that?
Here are some thoughts to consider:
Supervise your children any time they’re around firearms.
- I don’t care how responsible you may think your own little “Ralphie” may be, kids should not be left alone with firearms. They sometimes do things they don’t even know they might regret, and that’s a lesson I don’t think any of us wants to teach the hard way.
- How old is “old enough”? I don’t know. I think it varies from one kid to the next, and from place to place… but seriously, at the very least think more than twice before letting a pre-teen run loose with a gun.
- Even when you do turn them loose, provide an atmosphere of supervision. Remind them of the safety considerations and then set and enforce rules. Let them know that if they violate those rules, the best they can hope for is to lose their shooting privileges. The worst is unthinkable.
Lock up those guns.
- If you honestly believe your kid would never mess with the guns just because you told him not to, you are deluded. It is as simple as that. I know from my own childhood experience, from my friends, and from my friends’ kids, prohibition simply doesn’t work… even with the real threat of a serious ass-whipping as a consequence.
- There’s simply no excuse not to lock them up. If you can’t afford a safe, use a lock. The manufacturers give away trigger and cable locks when you buy a gun, or you can pick one up from almost any sporting goods store for well under $10. Or go to the Project Childsafe website and locate a local source for a free lock and safety kit.
- If you believe you need an accessible firearm for home defense, consider one of the quick-access biometric safes. They’re not that expensive these days. If you can’t afford that, then at least lock the gun away when you’re not where you can see it… or keep it with you as you move around the house. The news archives have way too many stories about kids who died because dad’s loaded gun was unprotected in the bedside table, even while mom and dad were right in the next room.
Demonstrate and practice safe firearm handling.
- Nothing teaches a kid good or bad habits better than observing a mentor. If you model the behavior you teach, kids tend to make a positive association with those behaviors.
- Vice versa, if you are a slob with a gun, your kid will become a slob with a gun, no matter what lessons you think you’re teaching. And just because you got away without killing yourself or someone else, your youngster may not be so lucky.
- No one… neither child nor adult… respects the “do as I say, not as I do” approach.
So go on out there and get your kids that new rifle or shotgun for Christmas. Teach them to shoot and hunt, and all the things that go with the shooting sports… including woodsmanship, patience, responsibility, and respect for and appreciation of safe gun handling.