Get Kids On-Target With Gun Safety
For many Arkansas families hunting is a rite of passage, but there are steps parents should take to be sure kids are ready to head into the woods.
By Dwain Hebda
The second amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees Americans the right to bear arms. The impending duck and deer hunting seasons guarantee that those guns will soon be taken out of safes and cabinets and into the field all over Arkansas for the annual rites of fall.
Gun safety advocates and hunter education experts say all responsible gun owners should pay extra attention when those firearms share a home with children, from safe storage to seeing to youngsters’ proper training with firearms.
“No parent would hand over the keys to a car if they weren’t certain their child could drive responsibly,” said Anna Grayson, who coordinates shooting events and classes at Delta Resort in McGehee. “No parent would throw their child off a high diving board if they couldn’t swim. Taking a son or daughter hunting or shooting for the first time should not be the first exposure to gun safety.”
Grayson, a lifelong hunter and longtime educator, grew up in Wabbaseka and learned to handle firearms in stages. She said moving youngsters up the firearms ladder is one good way to help them learn and adapt. “I grew up duck hunting and deer hunting with my dad and target shooting,” she said. “He started me with a BB gun and shooting at paper plates or cans. Then we went up from there.”
“I have a friend who believes that their children have to start at the bottom. Like, you kill a squirrel, then you kill a rabbit. Then maybe we’ll let you go duck hunting. Then maybe deer hunting. You have to earn it and appreciate it.”
Grayson said one of the most common questions she gets is when the best time is to start a youngster in shooting sports. She said with the range of BB guns and youth model rifles, it’s not so much about physical readiness as it is about maturity sufficient to appreciate that guns must be treated with respect.
“If they express some interest in it, that’s a good time to start teaching them gun safety,” she said. “Probably not shoot it right off the bat, but a good task is to take it apart and clean it. Learning the parts of it and what they do takes some of the mystery out of it.”
About the time the child is a teenager with an interest in hunting, they should attend hunter education provided by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Not only will they learn proper firearm safety and hunting etiquette in the field, but completion is required for purchase of a hunting license.
“The hunter education program is mandatory for anyone born on or after January 1, 1969,” said Joe Huggins, AGFC education coordinator, who noted the course can be taken in person or online. “Those individuals must successfully complete a hunter education course in order to hunt.”
“Anybody can take the course, and there is not an age requirement on it. The course itself is based on about a sixth-grade reading level, so we recommend that students be at least 12 years of age just to understand some of the terminology and have the experience when they get in there.”
Another AGFC-sponsored activity that reinforces safety and proper handling of firearms is the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program, a competitive trapshooting activity that has enjoyed significant growth in recent years.
“We’ve grown to the point where we have four regional competitions,” Huggins said. “The top 16 teams out of each region advance to state competition.” Understanding gun safety isn’t just a priority for those who shoot clay targets or look to bring down a duck. Nationally, nearly 300 children age 17 and under gain access to a gun and unintentionally shoot themselves or someone else each year. Nearly 500 more die by suicide with a gun. These statistics underline the critical importance of properly securing firearms.
“Since 2015, we’ve been doing a campaign called Be SMART for kids, which is our gun safety initiative,” said Kat Hills with the Arkansas chapter of Mothers Demand Action, a gun violence prevention group. “It follows the same guidelines as the American Academy of Pediatrics. We say that the safest way to store a weapon is locked and unloaded and stored separately from ammunition.”
Hills said parents’ responsibility doesn’t end with their own firearms, either. Asking a friend’s parents how they store their weapons—and refusing to let a child play in a home with unsecured weapons—may come off as awkward, but is essential to keeping children safe.
“You spend all this time, from the minute your kids are born, worrying about what we’re feeding them and what they’re eating and and how they’re sleeping and these other safety issues,” Hills said. “This is a safety issue, a public health issue, and as a parent, you need to do something about this, as awkward as it sometimes is.”