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Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002

Public Perspectives: Children and Guns: Advocacy Groups Speak Out
James Forman


When gun control and pro-gun advocacy groups talk about children and guns, the images they describe could not be more different. Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a leading national gun control group, tells the story of two-year-old Kaile Hinke from Fort Myers, Florida, who was shot in the chest by her three-year-old brother Colton. According to Sugarmann, "Colton found the loaded .25-caliber pistol in a drawer in his parents' bedroom, where he and Kaile were playing while their mother was in another room. Kaile was driven to Lee Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead."1

Erich Pratt, communications director for Gun Owners of America, paints a very different picture, describing Jessica Carpenter, a California 14-year-old who was baby-sitting her younger siblings when a pitchfork-wielding assailant invaded their home. "Having been trained by her father, Jessica knew how to use a firearm. There was just one problem: The household gun was locked up in compliance with California state law."2 Accordingly, said Pratt, "Jessica had few options. She could not call 911 because the intruder had cut the phone lines to the house. She could not protect herself, for state officials had effectively removed that possibility. Her only option was to flee the house and leave her siblings behind." Jessica survived, but her two younger siblings did not.

"Advocates are so far apart on this issue that even when they imagine the same kid, their gut reactions are totally different," said David Kopel, research director at the Denver-based pro-gun Independence Institute. Kopel gave an example: "a 13-year-old kid who says he wants to go out to the nearby field and shoot some cans. The pro-gun folks think that's great; let's make this happen. It's an idyllic picture. The anti-gun people are horrified: a kid with a gun—and unsupervised, too. That's even worse."

This article addresses the issue of child and youth access to guns from the perspective of advocates on both sides of the gun debate. It is based on telephone interviews with 29 pro-gun and gun control advocates, conducted between September and December 2001. Two questions frame the inquiry. First, to what extent do advocates believe that young people's access to guns is problematic? Second, if gun access is a problem, what solutions do advocates on each side of the debate endorse? As this article makes clear, although gun control groups unanimously believe that easy access to firearms by children and youth is a problem, the responses they propose vary depending on regional and philosophical differences.

Pro-gun groups, for their part, generally do not believe that youth access to guns is problematic. To the extent that they see it as a concern, they define the problem much more narrowly than do gun control groups.