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Sue Lani Madsen: Let’s treat gun safety like safe sex and teach it in schools

Sue Lani Madsen,columnist

We’ve just had another round of the same old useless shouting match about guns and gun control. Let’s pause the non-conversation and look at gun violence as a public health issue, like other matters of life and death.

Like sex, for example.

Children are naturally curious about sex. They see sexual activity portrayed on screen in ways beyond their full comprehension. Much of it is wrong or misleading. How many times in a movie or video series have you seen anyone pull out a condom before a casual hookup?

Advocates for Youth is a typical public health nonprofit that believes “adolescents have a fundamental human right to accurate and comprehensive sexual health information.” They publish a guide for parents called “Talking with TV” to help parents provide context, correct what’s shown on the screen and teach their family’s values. They believe in teaching rights, respect and responsibilities.

But not every family takes advantage of educational resources or has those difficult conversations. Most school districts fill the gap by providing sex education as part of the health curriculum.

If parents think they have the bases covered or object to their children being educated on the mechanics of sex, they can excuse their children from class.

What if we took the same approach with guns?

Craver Middle School in Colorado City made headlines when it provided a three-day firearms education course in the classroom. Students learned the history of firearms and the Second Amendment, how to use different types, when to use them, and safety rules for handling firearms. The third day was spent at a firing range, taking away the mystery and teaching rights, respect and responsibilities.

Just as with sex education, the best training begins at home. My first firearms training came from my father – don’t touch the gun, always assume a gun is loaded and never point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy. It’s the basic message of respect and responsibility included in any good firearms safety course.

Even if you have no guns in your household, your children will be exposed to guns. For too many children, the only training they have on how to handle guns is watching trigger-happy actors almost always get it wrong. Their first face-to-face exposure could be their last.

Children need to be taught what to do in the face of temptation and danger. If they find a gun or another child wants to show them a gun, the rule is don’t touch, leave the area and tell an adult. The most dangerous thing anyone, child or adult, can do is to grab the barrel of a gun and try to take it away. Children should not be handling guns without adult supervision. Children should just say no.

But as so many sex education advocates are fond of pointing out, abstinence-only messages don’t work as well as abstinence plus information. Children are naturally curious about guns. Besides don’t touch and tell an adult, wise families who choose to keep guns in the household provide carefully controlled, hands-on training. Hunter safety courses are available when a child reaches an appropriate age, and can be a good resource for the whole family, whether they hunt or not.

It’s not just children who need to learn. Without education on proper handling and gun safety rules, we imitate what we see. Too many adults think they know what they’re doing because they’ve seen it in movies. After years of watching actors mishandle guns onscreen, the hardest thing to unlearn when I took up pistol shooting as an adult was to keep my finger off the trigger. If you don’t know where your trigger finger should be until you’re ready to shoot, then you need to take a class. Find one and sign up.

Our state and federal constitutions guarantee a fundamental right to own firearms. Experience tells us that prohibition, abstinence-only and “Just say no” don’t work. To an educated gun owner, gun control means knowing how to store it, handle it and use it. Education removes fear and builds respect.

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at or on Twitter: @SueLaniMadsen.

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