Kids and Guns: Passing on the Passion Responsibly

My first experience shooting a firearm wasn’t what most would expect. My father had two firearms when I was a kid — Smith & Wesson Model 29 and Model 13. For those who don’t know, those are .44 and .357 Magnum handguns. Not exactly what you’d want for a beginning shooter, much less a child. Nevertheless, my dad let me shoot a couple of rounds of .44 Special to my surprising enjoyment. For some reason, I fell into a lifelong passion and obsession with firearms that has spanned over 30 years and garnered a rather sizable collection to my financial detriment.

Now having entered the role of a parent to two young children, I’ve been thrown into passing on that passion and respect for firearms. I’ve also had to be realistic. Not everyone has an overwhelming urge to buy the latest and greatest firearm the moment they step into their local gun shop. Nevertheless, everyone should have a healthy respect and understanding of firearms. Just like anything else with the potential to maim or kill; respect, not fear, is the key to understanding and properly handling.

When is the Right Time?

For many parents, including myself, the question is asked — when should I introduce my child to firearms? Just like choosing a concealed carry or home defense firearm, there is no blanket answer to that question. There are some considerations that should be accounted for, though. What is your child’s maturity? Do they listen well to you? Have they shown a curiosity or interest in firearms?

introducing child to firearm
My son showed an interest in firearms early. I allowed him to satiate part of that curiosity only when supervised. Firearms were kept secure and he was instructed to only touch them if a parent said it was ok.

I gradually introduced my oldest, my son, through casual exposure to guns. When he was two years old, he climbed into my lap to see what I was doing with all of the gun parts I was cleaning and routinely asked what each part was on the “dow” (his toddler word for a gun). As he became older, his curiosity became more about wanting to shoot them and go with Dad on range days. Unfortunately, while he was too small to shoot, that didn’t satiate his curiosity. Children are curious creatures and want to know everything and anything about the world around them. So, how does a parent handle their child’s curiosity about firearms?

Don’t Touch That!

How often did we hear “Don’t touch that!” as kids? How many times did we still touch the candy in the checkout line? And therein lies the point — kids are curious. If we quash that curiosity, they will want to push back to see why mom or dad doesn’t want them near the item of their hyper-focus.

The best course of action for curious kids — with the most anecdotal success — is to allow them to ask questions and, within reason, satiate their curiosity for firearms. I allowed my kids to pick up the bolt carrier on my AR-15, pick up a pistol magazine, or even flip the safety on a disassembled firearm. The key is clear instructions (set the rules clearly before they touch anything) and a simple caveat: you can look at them, inquire about them, and (at the parent’s comfort level) allow some safe handling as long as a parent is dedicated to supervising them. I’ve held steadfast to this rule since my son expressed his first curiosity. He’s seven now and knows the parameters. He will not handle a firearm unless he asks me first and has received a clear response and direction from me, his mom, or another responsible party he knows he’s allowed to listen to (Grandpa for instance).

The goal is to feed their hunger for understanding and appreciating firearms while building safe handling and proper respect for them. Safe gun handling habits aren’t built in a single range session. They’re a learned trait that requires respect and understanding for them. If we make firearms the forbidden fruit in the household, kids will invariably want to see what they’re all about. It’s a human trait as old as, well, Adam and Eve. Making firearms taboo, like any other potentially dangerous or risky subject matter, is a recipe for disastrous results. Instill respect, knowledge, and education early before they ever have their first shot downrange and the experience will be far more enjoyable for those involved.

Introduction to Firearms

One day, your mini-me will be ready, willing, and motivated to go to the range. Before then, how do you prepare your child for shooting a gun for the first time? Some of the better methods available may already be in your home. I keep several airsoft guns available for training and, yes, have admittedly competed in airsoft competitions to my enjoyment. These firearms are light, have minimal recoil, and many have similar operation to the real thing.

airsoft Glock 19X on table with associated gear
This airsoft Glock 19X runs on gas and is exceptionally light with some felt recoil. Not only do I experience an inexpensive benefit of using it for practice, but my son has learned how to manipulate handguns through supervised practice with it.

I allowed my son to handle some airsoft guns in a safe environment and made the expectations clear — he needed to approach this the same as would be expected of him on the range. We had a backdrop set up in the backyard and I worked on technique with him over several sessions. Kids have short attention spans and it’s important not to overload them with information. Focus on SAFETY first and foremost. The skills will come with time.

Not everyone has airsoft guns available to them, but any toy gun can suffice whether it be a Nerf, cap, or similar. Making it a challenge with a reward for them adds to their desire to follow proper safety practices while engraining subconscious habits that will carry them safely over years of shooting. Once your child has shown they can listen to directions, follow proper safety habits, and stay focused on the task of shooting safely, they may be ready to take the next step and send their first round down range!

Getting on the Range

I started my son, and will do the same with my daughter, on a small light-recoiling long gun. We started with a Savage Rascal outfitted with a Burris Fastfire. While I would normally start an inexperienced adult shooter on iron sights, children can only take so much information before the task becomes overwhelming and frustrating. By adding an optic, the instructions are simple: put the dot on the target. From there, you can maintain focus on safety and isolate things like trigger control.

My son shooting his first rifle on a sandbag. Note the trigger discipline!

We shot the firearm off a sandbag rest while he was seated so he didn’t get tired holding it nor was he tempted to dangerously swing it around. By isolating the involved tasks, he gradually learned trigger control, breathing, sight alignment, and sight picture over several range trips.

Before ever firing the first round, I covered the range rules with him. Range rules were the four basic rules of firearm safety: Treat every firearm as if it were loaded, always point the firearm in a safe direction, finger off the trigger until ready to fire, and always be aware of your target and what is beyond, around, or between you and the target. This ritual has gotten to the point where my son knows these rules nearly verbatim. Since we shoot at home, he knows range commands such as when to call a cease-fire. It was a proud dad moment to see him call out, “Range is cold!” while he opened the action to his .22, visually and physically inspected the chamber, put it on safe, and ran downrange to see his target. Those habits aren’t built in a day and, with repetition and positive confirmation, they can become subconscious to a young shooter. However, I still supervise his shooting regularly because kids are, well, kids.

A brief point worth noting here is to emphasize the dangers associated with improperly handling a firearm. When our range was built and my son wanted to go shooting for the first time, I set up a gallon milk jug filled with water on our berm. I loaded up a 12 gauge with a round of birdshot and had my son stand next to me with hearing and eye protection. My son had been exposed to gunfire before, so the boom of the 12 gauge was no surprise to him. However, the sudden explosion of the milk jug left him with an ear-to-ear grin. The talk that followed was an explanation that firearms are tools to be treated with respect and, if disrespected, can do a lot of damage to things — or people — that we don’t want to hurt. We now regularly have to save plastic bottles, jugs, and the like because he enjoys shooting them. Nevertheless, the demonstration illustrated to him the awesome power of destruction a firearm can inflict upon a target.

Final Points

Ultimately, you, the parent, know what is best for your child, their maturity, and their personality. I’ve recently transitioned into allowing my son to shoot .22 pistols. I still started him with an airsoft replica and training pistol before he ever shot his first round. He’s learned how to shoot with iron sights and seems to share Dad’s passion for shooting. As of this writing, he’s asked to have another “boy’s range day” tomorrow.

My son has shown an interest in pistol shooting and we’re gradually introducing him to it. His arched back is because the gun, a Ruger 22/44 Lite, is a little heavy for him. Eventually, we will get him one that is more comfortable as he shows competency with the ones we currently have.

I have cautious confidence that my son knows how to handle firearms safely in a controlled environment. There has been a time or two that I’ve had to remind him of small safety violations (like letting his finger rest on the trigger while trying to find his sights with the gun pointed down range) but, because his introduction to firearms has been conservative, he hasn’t heard Dad bark at him in “the mean voice”.

While we can control the education, guidance, and respect our children are taught, we can’t always control the actions of others. Programs like NRA’s Eddie Eagle teach kids a simple process to follow if they encounter a firearm away from a responsible adult: stop, don’t touch, tell an adult. As a young man, I recall a “friend” offering me to come over to his house so he can show me his dad’s guns. I asked if his dad was home. “No”, was his reply. I never accompanied him to his house and probably averted a tragic result by doing so. Educating your little ones on how to approach not handling an unattended firearm is as important as teaching them how to safely handle one.

While convenient to access, firearms left unattended are a recipe for dangerous results. It’s not just our own little ones we should be concerned about with firearms.

 A final point worth noting is your child bears the responsibility of safe gun handling; furthermore, they also bear the burden of ensuring they aren’t in a situation where their safety is jeopardized by someone else. Children learn that responsibility from their parent, guardian, or other adult setting the example for them. Raise them to respect and appreciate firearms, as we do, so this historic and enjoyable right can continue on for future generations to enjoy.

Tom Stilson began his career in firearms in 2012 working the counter for a gun store. He progressed to conducting fine and collectible firearms appraisals before becoming the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered into public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has worked for urban and rural agencies and obtained certifications as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. He enjoys time on his backyard range if he's not spending it with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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