Although the subject of children and guns is a troubling contemporary issue, it created little controversy before the twentieth century. Smooth-bored, muzzle-loading muskets were common in the colonies and the early republic. The weapons were imported from Europe, since there were few gunsmiths in America. Some guns were old or broken, but many more were in working order and accessible to children. The popular image of the crack-shot American boy given a gun in his cradle is overstated, however. Before the improvement of rifles and pistols in the mid-nineteenth century there were few guns accurate enough to support sharpshooting. Yet the wide distribution of guns among private citizens meant that American children were more familiar with them than were children in Europe (where gun ownership was closely regulated by the state). Anecdotes to that effect can be found in the narratives of European visitors.
While there was little generalized anxiety concerning children and guns during the early American era, the same tragic mishaps occurred that filled newspapers in the late twentieth century. The Reverend David Osgood preached a funeral sermon in 1797 for a nine-year-old boy killed when a gun held by a friend accidentally discharged and struck him in the bowels. But Osgood took a very different lesson from the accident than would today's moralists, drawing attention to the uncertainty of life and warning his audience to receive grace before they too were taken. He acknowledged but did not decry the gun's lack of a guard, and made nothing of children using a gun.
The author of one of the earliest documents to look critically at children and guns worried less about the children's safety than about their cheapening of what had been an elite sport. In his 1814 Instructions to Young Sportsmen, Peter Hawker tried to acculturate working-class youth to the finer rituals of shooting. Fred Mather, a renowned nineteenth-century fisherman and hunter, worried about children and guns for the sake of the small creatures that crossed their paths. In his memoir, Men I Have Fished With, he fondly recalled boyhood adventures using a very old musket he coowned with a friend to shoot birds, muskrats, and deer. But his recollections are tainted with regret at his immoderacy. He implores fathers not to give guns to their sons because boys are savage and bloodthirsty, and will kill everything they can.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, toy guns appeared on the market. The cap gun was invented in 1859, pop guns in the 1870s, and the Daisy Air Rifle (or BB gun) in 1888. These toy weapons were initially quite dangerous, which restricted their appeal, but their increasing safety prompted escalating sales in the twentieth century. In the 1930s, advertisers shifted from selling toy guns for target-practice games to accentuating their use in fantasy role-playing. Boys could become G-men, cowboys, or even gangsters. For some adults, these games were too evocative of the terrorizing "gunplay" in which real Depression-era gangsters were engaging. In 1934 and 1935, Rose Simone, an activist, led Chicago schoolchildren to throw their toy guns into bonfires to protest the toys' fostering of youth violence.
However, there is little evidence that youth, even those who belonged to bootlegging gangs, used guns in their fights. Knives were more common. Only in the 1960s did guns begin to play a prominent role in teen gang behavior; still they were predominately used to make an impression rather than to cause injury. Meanwhile, pacifist sentiment aroused by the anti–Vietnam War movement had sparked a new campaign against toy guns, leading Sears to eliminate toy guns from its catalogs and Dr. Benjamin Spock to recommended against allowing children to engage in "pistol play." That antipathy to toy guns, however, shrinks in significance compared to the impact made on children's games by the invention of a new technology. The video game secured the role of guns–whether represented graphically or as a hand-held plastic facsimile pointed at the screen–in children's games. Some contemporary social critics argue that video games desensitize children to violence and condition them to take actual lives; others disagree.
The danger posed to children by the mass influx of guns into the illegal market in crack cocaine that developed during the 1980s is beyond the realm of speculation. The low price of crack, and its sale in small quantities, caused the absolute number of drug sales to increase exponentially, necessitating a parallel increase in the number of salesmen. Thousands
of urban youths became crack dealers. The fluidity of the market encouraged violent competition among the sellers of crack, and more and more young dealers began carrying guns for protection. Between 1984 and 1991 homicide rates by adolescents tripled, an increase directly attributable to rising rates of youth gun-ownership.
Government and the not-for-profits have responded to the crisis with a flurry of well-intentioned campaigns. The U.S. Congress held hearings on the subject of children and guns in 1989 (as part of the "Save the Kids" campaign) and 1992. There have been proposals for special legislation (some of which has passed, such as the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994) to curb the problem. The Carter Center, the Violence and Policy Center, Children's Defense Fund, and the American Youth Center have published reports since 1989 on the subject of children and guns. All argue for better gun control. A rash of well-publicized school shootings during the 1990s, most of which occurred in white rural and suburban communities, forced many Americans to recognize that the crisis is not restricted to inner-city African-American youth. In 1999, 4,205 children were killed by gun-fire. Most were older teenagers, but 629 were under fifteen years old.
Nonetheless, strong sentiment remains favoring children's gunplay. The National Rifle Association (NRA) publishes a special magazine, InSights, for its junior members, which features glossy photographs of children holding guns and encourages its readers to target-shoot and hunt. Memoirs of childhood shooting with dad, or granddad, likewise are a popular feature of American Rifleman, the NRA's primary publication. It remains to be seen whether either the gun-safety education programs that the NRA promotes, or the gun-control measures advocated by the NRA's opponents, will stop the gun accidents and gun violence that threaten American children.
See also: Delinquency; Drugs; Law, Children and the; Police, Children and the; School Shootings and School Violence; Street Games; Toys; Youth Gangs.
Cook, Philip J., ed. 1996. "Kids, Guns, and Public Policy." Law and Contemporary Problems 59, no. 1.
Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Grossman, Dave. 1995. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown.
Ward, Jill M. 1999. Children and Guns. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.
Rachel Hope Cleves