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Loaded question: In a world with guns, is there a right way to keep kids safe?

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However parents feel about guns, deciding how to inform their kids and keep them safe is very personal.
Illustration: Thomas Pitilli

The shotgun kicked hard. Even with ear protectors, the sound sent its own shock wave down my spine. Dad had described exactly how it would feel. Before I was allowed anywhere near his guns, he taught me to respect their power. I handled my first like a holy relic with a lit fuse.

I was 8, the same age as Dad when he learned to shoot. It took him four years to earn his father’s trust enough to carry a 20 gauge with both barrels loaded, closed and ready to fire while they were bird hunting. Only once, he neglected a minor safety rule and was forbidden to shoot for the rest of the season. He passed on that mentality to my sister and me, which is why we never played at cracking his gun safe or even peeked at the pistol in his bedside drawer.

“I said, ‘You can handle a gun all you want if I’m with you, particularly after you learn how guns work and what they do and how dangerous they can be,’” Dad said when I asked how he decided what would keep us safe.

The Details

Eddie Eagle Children's Gun Safety
Ages 5-11. Monthly on second Friday, 4-5 p.m., free.
The Gun Store, 454-1110.

The fathers and mothers in this classroom face the same decision. The Gun Store’s free Eddie Eagle safety class for kids (ages 5 to 11) drew them here with a dozen youngsters, ranging from a restless girl in light-up sneakers to a pair of quiet brothers in matching green coats. I can’t help thinking about Sandy Hook. The victims were this young, this innocent. I wonder if any of these families are here because of the headlines.

After touching on fire and bicycle safety to set the tone, certified instructor Gwen Eaton asks what the kids would do if they saw a gun. A tiny voice says: “Don’t touch.” That’s the gospel of Eddie Eagle, the NRA’s cartoon safety mascot who swoops in when kids stumble on guns to rap the golden rule: Stop! Don’t touch! I’m Eddie Eagle, and I like you too much to see you get hurt and that’s why I say if you spot a gun just walk away. Go find an adult; go tell ’em what you found. Guns shouldn’t be left lying around.

After the video, Eaton invites the kids to demonstrate Eddie’s rhymes and moves. Then she quizzes them. “Let’s say you’re at a friend’s house. The two of you are playing and you see a gun. … You want to leave the area and go tell an adult, but your friend says, ‘No, please stay and play with me. We can play with the gun.’ They tease you because you’re chicken, right? … What are you gonna do?”

“Um, still go.”

“Ignore him and just keep on going.”

“Excellent. That’s the very thing,” Eaton says. “Do not stick around where there’s a gun.”

She reads a different Eddie Eagle story in a giant picture book to hammer the message, which is further reinforced by coloring books, stickers and certificates. A mom asks if it’s okay for her sons to play with toy guns. Eaton says it’s a personal decision about “what you feel is right for your children.” Several parents share what that means to them.

Jason Payne introduced his daughter Zoe to a 9mm when she was in kindergarten. He had his hands on it with her, and after firing one shot she was ready to go back to the car. “I wanted her to know: Don’t be afraid of it, but it can harm you. It’s not a toy,” he says. Zoe, now 8, proudly tells me that her mom has a pink gun and that her dad promised when she gets a little older it can be hers, too.

For stay-at-home mom Angela Faasse, keeping a .22 in an electronic safe under her bed means protecting her family. “Just within the last year, our neighbor had a guy jump over his back wall to break in, and he shot him,” Faasse says, unsure if the intruder survived. She brought Kayla, 11, and Jordyn, 7, for the safety class, with 3-year-old Makenzy in tow. Their grandpa, a retired Air Force master sergeant, gives all of his grandkids guns for their 12th birthdays, and Faasse hopes tonight will be a positive primer. “Nowadays,” she says, “starting them out young is the best thing to do with the way society has become, unfortunately.”

Randy Lovstuen echoes that thought, recalling a tragic local story last summer about an 11-year-old fatally shooting his 5-year-old nephew with a gun they found in a toy chest. Lovstuen’s son Lars, 7, was in the victim’s class. “My good friends have daughters that are the same age, and one of their daughters was in his class also. And they are very anti-gun. … Because I’m around guns and embrace them, my children know about them,” Lovstuen says of Lars and 8-year-old Anders. “They also know what to do if they see one. My friends’ children are clueless. In my opinion, the people who hate guns should be bringing their kids here. And they don’t, because they don’t even want their kids to even hear the word. … They want to protect their kids from guns, and they’re not.”

However parents choose to protect their kids, sometimes they can’t. If there’s an upside, it’s that accidents and mass shootings account for very small fractions (less then 2 and 1 percent, respectively) of gun deaths in the U.S. But when they do happen it shakes us to the core. I don’t know if Eddie Eagle makes a dent. Advocates of stronger gun control question both the effectiveness and motives of the program, saying it mostly glamorizes firearms as something you can only indulge in as an adult. That hasn’t stopped state legislatures from Washington to Michigan from responding to the recent rash of shootings by passing measures to encourage Eddie’s teachings in public school.

I don’t have guns or children of my own, but I want to believe this class makes some difference. So do Faasse, Lovstuen and Payne, who love their kids as much as parents who think shielding their families from guns will keep them safe. I truly hope they can all be right.

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Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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