*Author Disclaimer: This is an article about firearms safety—not gun control. Some may argue the two are intrinsically linked, others may see defining lines between them. This article is meant to be a tool to help you safely handle and store firearms in your home, if you choose to have them. Share your thoughts with us after reading the article at www.villagefamilymag.org.
Like many North Dakotans, Tom Linnertz grew up hunting. Owning his first firearm was a rite of passage, and he eagerly awaited the annual hunting season when he could enjoy the Peace Garden state’s natural beauty while staking out his game. And, like most North Dakotans in the late 1970s, Linnertz had never taken a hunter safety education course. That all changed the day a bullet pierced his neck, ricocheted through his chest cavity, and exited behind his arm.
“Somebody shot over a hill,” says Linnertz, originally from Minot. “That’s one of the main rules of shooting—be sure of your target and what’s beyond. Obviously they had no way of knowing what was beyond.”
At 22 years old, Linnertz lay bleeding to death on the land he loved so much. He had done everything right. He wore orange. He hunted in daylight. He scouted with a group. Still, another hunter made a critical error with their firearm.
“It was really bizarre,” Linnertz says, recalling the moments following the shooting. “I would not be here today if I were hunting alone.”
Back then, most youngsters learned about guns from their dads, who, most likely, were hunters themselves. Your dad showed you his rifle and said, “Don’t touch this. Don’t play with it. It’s not a toy.”
After getting shot, Linnertz realized people needed to be educated on how to safely use firearms. His timing was perfect; hunter safety education courses provided by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department had just started gaining traction in the Fargo area after the state legislature passed a law in 1977 requiring anyone born after December 31, 1961 to take a course before they could buy a hunting license.
“Before these classes came along, we used to have up to 17 shooting deaths in the state of North Dakota during the hunting season,” explains Linnertz. “We’ve had, I think, only two people die who were graduates of the hunter safety program since it started.”
In our hunting-friendly states of North Dakota and Minnesota, firearm ownership is especially popular. But people other than hunters own firearms for purposes like personal protection, sport, or work. Estimates vary, but there are between 270 million to 310 million guns in the United States. That’s about one firearm for every person. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey shows 37 percent of households had an adult who owned a gun.
It seems the reasons why Americans own guns have shifted over time. Today, nearly half of gun owners report the main reason they own a firearm is for protection, and about a third say it’s for hunting. In 1999, nearly half said they owned a gun for hunting, and 26 percent said it was for protection, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Handling a Gun
Dave Gaboury sees the right—and wrong—ways people handle guns in his work as vice president of the Red River Regional Marksmanship Center (RRRMC) in West Fargo. The indoor range offers open handgun and rifle shoot times and classes for all skill levels. Gaboury is also a certified National Rifle Association (NRA) Range Safety Officer, which means he has passed a training course to help facilitate safe shooting activities at a firing range.
Gaboury emphasizes that people who operate guns need to be vigilant about gun safety 100 percent of the time. Most gun enthusiasts understand the safety factor, but there are many others who do not.
So how should you safely handle a gun? Here’s some advice everyone can follow, whether you’re an experienced gun owner or picking one up for the first time:
Consider all guns loaded. This must be a permanent mindset. Train yourself to think there is always a bullet in the chamber. Never assume a gun is free of ammunition, even if someone tells you it is.
Think about your gun as a weapon that needs constant watching in terms of safety, says Gaboury. “Don’t think about it as just a tool,” he cautions.
Point the gun in a safe direction. Never point the muzzle (where the bullet shoots out) at anything you’re not willing to destroy or kill.
Keep your finger off the trigger. Never let your finger touch the trigger when you’re standing or walking around. It is best to keep your trigger finger straightened alongside the frame of the gun.
Be sure of your target and what is beyond. Know what your target is, what is in line with it (in front of it), and what is behind it (remember how Tom Linnertz was shot while hunting?).
Take a firearms safety class. If you’re considering owning a gun or are interested in trying sport shooting, sign up for a beginner class.
For more information on hunter safety and firearms education classes in your area, check out these websites:
Red River Regional Marksmanship Center
ND Game and Fish Department
MN Department of Natural Resources
Storing a Gun
Storing your gun is an important aspect of gun ownership, yet it is often not properly addressed.
Why don’t people store guns appropriately? “Laziness. They live alone. They want to show off their collection,” offers Gaboury. Or, he adds, “It’s because if people aren’t exposed to that way of thinking when they’re young, then they don’t do it automatically. It’s like seat belts. A lot of younger people use them automatically because they’ve grown up that way. Older people may not.”
How you store your firearm is just as crucial as knowing how to handle it safely. Carrie Lightfoot, owner of The Well-Armed Woman, an Arizona-based business dedicated to educating women on safe gun ownership, writes on her website that you should decide where and how you’ll store your firearms before you bring them home.
Jordan Smart, an officer with the Moorhead Police Department and a father of five, says if you have kids in your house, it’s extremely important all guns be secured in a locked safe. “I have five kids, and they have a knack for getting into places I thought were out of reach. I can’t stress that enough.”
Safely storing your firearm takes forethought and an established routine you ALWAYS follow, not just occasionally, adds Smart. If you have children in your home, or if children visit your home (maybe you’re a grandparent or a tutor or a babysitter), firearms should NEVER be accessible to them. There are so many products on the market—safes, cases, locks, security devices—it’s easy to make safety a priority.
KidsHealth (www.kidshealth.org) suggests these safety measures to keep guns away from your kids and prevent accidents:
Take the ammunition out of the gun. Lock the ammunition and store it away from the gun.
Lock the gun in a safe (a biometric safe that can read ONLY your fingerprint is best) and keep the safe out of reach of kids. DO NOT hide the gun in a closet, drawer, car, or up high. Kids are more adventurous and curious than we give them credit for.
Consider using a trigger lock in conjunction with locking your gun in a safe. NEVER use a trigger lock as your main security device. They can be easily defeated.
If you use a key lock safe, store the keys separately from your house or car keys. Keep them out of reach of kids.
Store gun cleaning supplies (some are poisonous) with other cleaning items that may be hazardous to your children (like detergents).
Never leave your gun unattended for any reason.
Talking to Kids About Guns
Talking to your children about firearms is a touchy topic for parents to navigate. Some parents feel kids shouldn’t know about, see, or touch guns. Other parents feel children should be educated about firearms because they play a substantial role in the cultures of North Dakota and Minnesota. For the sake of this article, we are going to explore ways in which parents can talk to their children about guns, if they choose to do so.
Kids have a natural curiosity about guns that can’t be easily swayed, and they are exposed to guns at a young age through video games, television, and news reports, and in our region, through our hunting culture.
Rob Sailer, a Junior Air Pistol Coach who teaches courses through the West Fargo Park District (they are held at the RRRMC), says his first exposure to guns was a lot like Linnertz’s. “I grew up on a farm and learned early on where the ‘dangerous end’ was. That was the extent of gun safety for a while. As I got older, my dad introduced more of the issues I needed to be aware of for gun safety.”
As an adult, Sailer became interested in competitive shooting, and in 2009 he started coaching regularly. By that time, Sailer had three children who were in various stages of learning about firearms. Sailer believes teaching children about guns helps reduce their curiosity. “By the time my kids were 2, they knew what a gun was and that they weren’t supposed to touch it. By 4, it was more than just ‘don’t touch,’ it was ‘tell Dad!’ too. By 6 and 7, they knew what they needed to do if they needed to pick one up—point it in a safe direction; keep their finger off the trigger.”
The methods you’ll use to talk with and teach your children about guns will change as they grow older. You would not explain a firearm to a 2-year-old the same way you would an 8-year-old. Here are some things parents have done to teach children about firearms:
- Let them see your gun. Obviously, double- and triple-check it’s not loaded. Show them the different parts of the gun and tell them what the different parts do.
- Instruct them never to touch the gun. Tell them to leave the area and tell an adult if they see a gun.
- Use news reports, video games, or other media sources as ways to spark conversations about guns. Ask them questions about guns or what they’re seeing and reading, and clear up the myths. Distinguish between how a gun is used in ‘real life’ versus what they see on screens.
- Assume your children will not understand, or follow through with, your instructions and lessons about guns. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat what you want them to know about guns.
- If your child has toy guns, consider using them as teaching tools. You can teach them how to safely handle the gun (finger off the trigger, pointed away from people and objects) in a way that may be interesting. Once your child is older, you can show how the toy gun is different from a real gun.
- Practice safe gun handling yourself. Your kids are ALWAYS watching you and you are their best teacher. Walk the walk.
- Consider signing up for a gun safety education class. The NRA offers the Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program, which includes an instructor guide, activity book, poster, and video. This is best suited to younger elementary-age children. Late elementary, middle-, and high-schoolers may benefit from taking a hunter safety education course, even if they’re not hunters.
This last option is becoming increasingly popular for families in North Dakota and Minnesota. Hunter safety educators say the number of parents and children who are taking the class together is growing each year, as is the number of adults and kids who may not want to shoot guns but who live in a household where firearms are present. Every instructor interviewed for this article says taking a firearms safety course—whether for hunting or for general use—is something families should do together if they have a gun in the home.
“To be honest, most of the challenge I see is parents not getting gun safety,” explains Sailer. “I find myself correcting parents in their gun handling as often as I correct kids in their gun handling.”
One Fargo-Moorhead mom, who wishes to remain anonymous, says everyone in her family (herself, husband, and two kids) has taken and passed a hunter safety education course. “Our son was 13 and our daughter was 15. She is not a hunter, but we made her take the course because we have guns in the house. Her current boyfriend is a hunter, so it was well worth making her take the course with us,” says the mom.
She adds that safety was her number one motivation in making that decision. “It’s common sense to take precautions when handling guns. Safety is first. Always.”
Talking to Parents About Guns
What’s more difficult than talking to your children about guns? How about asking their friends’ parents if they keep firearms in their home and how they’re stored?
If it sounds like an invasion of privacy, it is, in a way. It’s also a critical step in gathering the knowledge you need to keep your kids safe from firearms. Considering the heavy hunting culture we live in, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
“If you have guns, parents should be willing to discuss how they’re stored without giving enough specifics that they feel their privacy is violated or they are at increased risk by giving away too much information,” says Gaboury. “You don’t need to go into specific detail, but giving generic information that yes, you have guns; yes, they’re locked in a safe; and yes, the ammo is stored separately, parents can draw their own conclusions on whether they feel their kid is safe at a friend’s house.”
Starting a conversation like this can be hard, but the alternative could be much worse. Experts agree those questions should be asked before allowing your child to play at a friend’s house, but advise approaching the topic carefully. Starting broadly about all safety concerns is a good way to ease into the conversation.
“Questions like, ‘Are they playing inside or outside?’ ‘Who will be supervising them?’ ‘Is there a busy street nearby?’ are all ways to start the conversation,” says Gaboury. “When you ask about guns after those questions, it’s more like you’re just trying to learn about the safety of the environment and not judging anyone.”
The Future of Firearms Use
A lot has changed in educating people about firearms since Tom Linnertz’s hunting accident. Hunter safety and firearms safety education courses are offered nationwide by various agencies. In some states, like North Dakota and Minnesota, people born after a certain year cannot get a license to hunt without proving they’ve successfully completed a hunter safety education course.
Linnertz is now one of the longest serving volunteer hunter safety education instructors in the state. Gun safety is always at the forefront of his mind when teaching, as it should be for anyone interested in owning, handling, or storing firearms.
Formerly from Fargo-Moorhead, freelance writer Patricia Carlson writes about baby boomers, parenting, and healthy lifestyles for magazines across the country. Check out her work at www.patriciacarlsonfreelance.com.
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