During a seminar on “home defense concepts” at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Louisville, an instructor encouraged gun owners to store firearms in their children’s bedrooms.
Rob Pincus, who owns the popular firearm instruction company I.C.E. Training, paced across a conference room stage as he repeatedly warned against the threat of violent home invasions. After establishing that filling one’s home with weapons is the only solution, he then recommended that gun owners store firearms in their kids’ rooms for easy access.
“Why would you consider staging a firearm inside a child’s room?” he told the few hundred NRA members in attendance. “It’s the first place I’m going to go! As I’ve said…many times, if your kid is going to break into the safe just because it’s in their room, you have a parenting issue, not a home defense issue.”
Pincus then posed a question to the audience (respondents received a copy of his book, Defend Yourself: A Comprehensive Security Plan for the Armed Homeowner): Describe your responsibility as gun owners, in terms of access.
A woman toward the front raised her hand and discussed her duty to “ensure” that unauthorized people don’t get their hands on her firearms. Pincus immediately toned down her response.
“Ensure is a strong word,” he said. “So I’m going to say we have an obligation to try to prevent unauthorized access.” He added that hidden, instead of locked or secured, is a perfectly appropriate way to secure a gun.
Researchers have found that only 39 percent of gun-owning families keep their firearms locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. For those that do not, the consequences can be terrible.
Everytown for Gun Safety reports that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of unintentional child gun deaths in the world. At least 265 people were accidentally shot by kids in 2015, and so far in 2016, there have been at least 96 accidental shootings by children. In one week in April, four toddlers accidentally shot and killed themselves, according to a New York Times report.
During the three days of the NRA convention, a three-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed a seven-year-old girl in Beverly, Illinois, less than 300 miles from where the leaders of the country’s most powerful gun lobby gathered to discuss their opposition to any type of gun safety legislation. And just over 700 miles away in LaPlace, Louisiana, a five-year-old girl accidentally killed herself while playing with a gun in her home.
Meanwhile, the threat of a violent home invader is far less likely than Pincus claims. Not only is the national rate of household burglary decreasing steadily, but so is the rate of violent crime during a home invasion. Less than one percent of homicides in the U.S. occur during a home invasion, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2010, the most recent year the issue was studied. The roughly 100 homicides per year that occur during household burglaries is far dwarfed by the number of shootings by kids who accidentally get their hands on firearms (not to mention the staggering number of unintentional shootings committed by adults every year).
“If the NRA is really are a gun safety organization, they should be lobbying for stronger laws that will protect children,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told ThinkProgress. “Instead, they are trying to promote and sell guns in a way that actually puts them in danger.”
Bowling Green, Kentucky-resident Haley Rinehart is all too aware of the very real danger of young children getting their hands on guns. In 2002, her then-four-year-old son, Eli, was at a relative’s home playing in a bedroom when he found a loaded gun laying between children’s books. He picked it up, his hand slipped and hit the trigger, and he shot himself through the eye.
Luckily her son recovered from his shooting, and the 18-year-old will graduate from high school next week. But for months, Rinehart said her family was unsure if he would pull through.
CREDIT: Haley Rinehart
Now a mother of four, Rinehart told ThinkProgress she has recently become an advocate with Moms Demand Action because she is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure more families do not have to go through what she did.
“It’s not something anyone should have to experience,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, gun lover or not.”
When she heard about the NRA’s recommendation that parents store weapons in children’s bedrooms, she was shocked.
“In my opinion, that is almost child negligence,” she said. “I would never advise to keep a gun, be it loaded or unloaded, in a child’s room, because if it’s in there, the child will eventually find it. That’s just irresponsible.”
Across the convention’s “seven acres of guns and gear,” thousands of NRA members perused the assault weapons and gear racks while pushing strollers or with small children trailing behind. Some older children took part in the action, trying out guns and gear alongside their parents. Other children dragged their parents to one vendor, which set up a candy station with some containers filled with candy and others filled with bullet casings.
On Friday, a sales associate helped 12-year-old Ciara Palermo, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, look at a bright pink carrying case for her automatic rifle. “I like looking around and trying out all the different guns and stuff,” she told ThinkProgress, wearing a pink NRA t-shirt and matching pink bandana. “I own two guns, personally.” Her dad, Tom, interrupted: “Well they’re hers but obviously she can’t title them.”
“I have a 22 that I use quite a bit,” Ciara continued. “I haven’t shot my AR that I got for my birthday last year.”
Her father, Tom Palermo, told ThinkProgress that he buys his children guns because he wants “to teach them responsibility and not to be afraid of them if they ever come across them.”
Though Ciara’s parents were more of the target demographic at the gun lobby’s annual meeting, the NRA did not shy away from welcoming children. The group hosted events for NRA youth on Saturday of the convention weekend, offering free six month NRA junior memberships for all attendees. Face painting and coloring stations were advertised alongside a “3 gun experience AirSoft” competitive shooting match.
A booth by the convention center entrance handed out materials for kids advertising the “Eddie Eagle” program, a curriculum designed by the NRA to advise children how to handle firearms safely. Children across the building carried Eddie Eagle-branded activity books and bags.
While the NRA is eager to extend its reach to children, it is not willing to provide resources for effective gun safety programs. Studies of the Eagle Eddie program have found that it is entirely ineffective at teaching children how to safely respond to an unsupervised firearm in a real-life situation.
And in states across the country, the group has lobbied against gun safety laws designed to help cut back on the high number of violent shootings involving children. In Tennessee, for example, the NRA was the most outspoken opponent against MaKayla’s Law, a bill that would have made it a crime to leave a loaded firearm unattended and readily accessible to a child under 13 years of age.
“If anti-gun legislators were serious about keeping kids safe, they would know that the key to reducing firearm accidents isn’t about prosecuting after the fact,” an alert issued in March by the NRA-ILA, the group’s lobbying arm, said. “It’s about educating children and parents about the safe use of firearms.”
Parents at the convention told ThinkProgress they agree that teaching “firearm safety” is the best way to keep children safe. One of those parents, shooting instructor Mark Schreiber, traveled to Louisville from Columbus, Ohio with his wife, seven-year-old son, and seven-week-old baby.
“He’s been shooting since he was three,” Schreiber said, pointing to his son sitting next to him, swinging a toy sword. “I have my own rifle!” Mark Jr. declared.
CREDIT: Kira Lerner
Among the hundreds of vendors at the convention, a few dozen targeted people who want to hide firearms in their homes. One vendor sold artwork that slides to the side to reveal a hidden compartment, and another, Secret Compartment Furniture, displayed tables and other household items with hidden compartments for weapons.
Founder Jill Herro, from Akron, Ohio, showed NRA members how the top of her company’s armoire can flip open to store a rifle and how a coffee table was configured with a secret sliding drawer for a smaller firearm. “I can put a lock on if somebody wants,” Herro told ThinkProgress. “I offer locking mechanisms if people want them.” But she said only about 50 percent of buyers request locks.
Though Herro was clear that she would never want a buyer to leave a firearm unsecured in their home, the reality is that there will be parents who do not take the necessary precautions to protect their children, Watts said.
“Two-thirds of unintentional shootings are the result of guns storage like that furniture,” she said.
Gun control advocates like Watts and Rinehart, whose son still has flashbacks to his accident when he hears loud noises, say that effective gun safety programs are incredibly important because we will never be able to eliminate the risk that children come across firearms.
“Accidents can happen,” Rinehart said. “We’re not against guns. We’re not against the right to bear arms. All we want is for people to properly secure their guns and be responsible gun owners.”
Though Schreiber said most of his family’s firearms are locked away, he added that he has some “defensive firearms strategically placed for safety purposes,” making his son one of the more than two million children living in homes with unsecured guns.
“He does not know where they are, and even if he does know where they are, he would not touch them,” Schreiber said.
“I know where the guns are! In the basement!” his son chimed in.